“Failure” is the F-word

Can you admit your failures? Could you stand up in front of your peers and say “I am a failure”? I doubt it. Few of us like to openly admit we fail. Yet we all do – in small ways on a daily basis and in big, embarrassing, cry in the corner ways too. So why is it so hard to talk about failure with honesty?

Our association of failure with the catastrophic version of failure is so great that we have all had hour-long conversations about “uneven success”, or “lessons learned”, with others who never once actually use the word “failure” in the conversation.

Why is that? Too often we equate the word “failure” with just one level of failure – Hindenburg or Fukushima-level catastrophes where history is altered on a global scale. But failure comes in many levels, from the mundane – “Honey, I forgot to get milk” – to the serious, but not life-altering failures – like many sports teams – to planned failures like the alpha or beta versions of any software program.


A Certain Level of Failure is Good

So now that we know that not all failure is equal, let’s accept that not all failure is bad, that failure can actually be positive.

When we pilot an idea, we should expect many little failures – we should actively seek to find the limits and fail in small, controlled ways – that’s how we learn what works and what doesn’t. We iterate based on those failures – or as they say in technology “fail early and often” – to develop a model that works. Once we take that model to scale, there will be many more opportunities to fail. Even then, we should not take it personally.

Even more importantly, we need to talk about failure. Mistakes that get brushed under the rug do double harm: first when we do the mistake, and then again every time someone else makes that same mistake because they couldn’t learn from the first error.


Especially in Philanthropy and Social Development

In social development efforts, we are working in some of the most challenging environments on earth – it’s our mission to go where others have failed to make a difference and help create lasting change. By the very definition of our calling, we should expect that we would fail, and fail often. If our work were easy, someone else would have solved the problems of poverty, pollution, corruption and the like long ago.

Our big problem is to get philanthropy and social development to abandon its existing – known, acceptable, safe – forms of failure in not scaling and not funding sustainable projects. We need to fail in new ways, risking programming with new, different, more innovative approaches.

Look at Silicon Valley, arguably the most successful business incubation environment in the world today. Venture capitalists invest millions in new, untested ideas and are excited to get a 10% success rate. They know 90% of their investments will fail when they go to market, and that’s acceptable because the 10% that succeed will be that transformative to the marketplace and their own portfolios. Now find a social development organization with that same 1 in 10 big impact mindset.

Ironically, you can find many donors who took major risks to make their own fortunes in the business world, but are very risk averse when giving to charity.

You can also find people and organizations that do not believe failure is an option. Who declare they build systems and program without failure, immune or even invincible to rogue elements. They build Death Stars of perfection, which turn out to be the most vulnerable to failure. Just one torpedo down an air shaft can destroy their whole organization.

Rather than trying to go for perfect, and getting blown up by a rag-tag rebel alliance, we need to accept that failure is a good thing, a healthy influence to have in our projects and in our life.


Failure is Positive

So let us change the meaning of failure in philanthropy and social development. Failure is no reason to be ashamed. Let us fail with pride, because failure is really success. Failure shows leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs.

There is great value in examining our failures as we go beyond the easy and the simple. Our failures show that we are succeeding in finding and improving solutions to poverty and injustice.

That is why we should all have annual Fail Festivals!

Recognize and Accept Failure

Failure happens. It’s multifaceted, nuanced, and occurring right now in our organizations. We all know it. Now accept it. Then talk about it. Finally, learn from it. We want to celebrate failure as innovation and learning.

That means we should all do a better job of talking about failure openly in our organizations, and openly with our peers. There are many ways to do this. We can start by being more honest with our staff. We can be more accepting with grantees. We can even have our own internal organizational Fail Fests throughout the year.

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

Encourage Innovation

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

Set up a fund for small $10,000-50,000 experiments – too small for logframes 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. And have everyone present their idea and result publicly – so we can also learn faster.

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. 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 development community – for us, for donors, and for 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 Festivals is to show that failure is an option and it is acceptable – one day and throughout the year

Celebrating failure as a mark of leadership and innovation