Publications & Products
Volume 5, Issue 39


Talking about Failure to Find Success

A recent movement in which nonprofits are transparent about their failures can actually be unproductive or even harmful, suggests one organizational learning expert.

"But it's not clear whether all this productive discussion about failure has changed anything in everyday practice," writes June Wang, an organizational learning expert, for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. "How can we talk about our failures more regularly, and in ways that truly allow us to learn and improve?"

Nonprofits and social organizations have made a habit of talking about their failures as a way to normalize discussions of what went wrong and learn from their mistakes, writes Wang. But sometimes these "celebration of failures" or "fail fests" have a number of drawbacks, she adds.

As an example, Wang writes about one foundation in which its grant-writing staff were required to  nominate the "worst grant from which they learned the most."

Staff voted on their favorite entry, and whatever team submitted the "winning grant" was awarded dinner, Wang writes.

After several of these events, discussions started centering more on what the grantee did wrong instead of on the foundation as a whole. And even when the focus was on the foundation, there was a lack of discussion around what was learned and how to use the information. Wang writes that the foundation eventually stopped holding the event and instead focused on creating more positive, productive discussions.

Wang offers alternatives to the popular "fail fest" structure that include:

  • Make a habit of pairing colleagues together to discuss ongoing projects, in which they analyze each other's problems and identify what could be done differently next time.
  • Identify the ways a project can go wrong, and predict potential failures—and then review those after the completion of the project.
  • Have departments review their strategies each year and keep an eye out for patterns of problems.

"I'm not opposed to calling something a failure if it is one," Wang writes. "Let's stop debating whether or not something was a failure. Instead, let's focus on learning and improving. Let's be candid about what's not going well, reflect on it, learn from it, and start doing things differently so we can chip away at those bucket lists."


This article is from the Advancement Weekly, April 4, 2016 issue.

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