5 Ways to Talk About Failure at Your Work

talk about failure at work

I recently led a Fail Festival for Grantmakers In Aging’s annual conference. It was wonderful to participate in-person again after hosting virtual Fail Fests during the pandemic.

GIA is a community of funders mobilizing money and ideas to strengthen resources for us, as we age. They were excited for their members to speak about their failures in supporting older adults and how we can all learn to speak about failure in our organizations.

5 Ways to Talk About Failure at Work

I was honored when their CEO brought forth four ideas from the Fail Festival in her keynote presentation to close the conference. She inspired many members to reflect on their organization’s culture and adopt these themes.

1. Recognize and Accept Failure

Life and Fail Festivals teach us that failure happens. Failure is multifaceted, nuanced, and occurring right now in each of our organizations. We all know it. Now accept it. Then talk about it and learn from it.

Your organization does not need to have a Fail Fest each year to recognize that failure happens and to learn from it. The point is not to celebrate failure for the sake of a good laugh. We want to celebrate failure as innovation and learning.

2. Honestly Talk About Failure

We should all do a better job of talking about failure openly in our organizations. There are many ways to do this.

  • We can start by being more honest with our staff.
  • We can be more accepting with grantees and partners.
  • We can even have our own internal Fail Fests.

Whatever method we choose, the Fail Fest concept should give you strength to take calculated risks, to think big, invest in the big leaps moving us all in a new direction.

3. Encourage Innovations

How can we encourage innovation in our own organizations? In our partners and grantees? Here is an idea: fail small, fast, and open.

Set up and fund experiments – too small for log frames or onerous reporting requirements, but large enough to try out an idea. Then shower your innovators with these grants. The only requirement is to honestly, openly test a specific theory of change and document the results.

Do not anticipate success with all the ideas that you invest in. In fact, expect multiple failures, just like a venture capitalist. Invest in the ideas that work, don’t sweat the ideas that do not.

Crucially, have everyone present their idea and result publicly – so we can also learn faster.

4. Demand a Minimum Level of Failure

If failure is a mark of innovation and risk taking, then we should be demanding a minimum level of failure as a proxy for how innovative an organization is.

Say something like a 10% of projects by number or value.

This is large enough to get staff attention and motivation, new enough that donors and funders will want to support it, but small enough that failure of any one project, or even groups of them, will not cause undue stress for organizational leadership.

5. Make Learning from Failure a Norm

Now along with accepting failure, we should expect the organization to show it learned from that failure – in that project and in their activities overall. And be public about it.

The goal is to establish a level of failure as healthy for the overall philanthropic community – for us, and for donors, and the public in general. So we can get past failure-as-catastrophic mindset and into thinking of failure as risk tolerance in innovation.

In fact, the point of Fail Festival events is to show that failure is an option and it is acceptable – today and throughout the year