Failure Shouldn't be a Dirty Secret

These days, a lot of us talk big about failure: "Embrace it; share it; learn from it!" Funders (or at least some) are pushing for more transparency so that money can be allocated more effectively. Young people are beginning to take more risks, some that may lead to some big fails, to help find a career with meaning. FailFAIRE takes the notion of "learning from your failures" to a whole new level.

Last month, MobileActive and the US Fund for UNICEF invited people to share their epic failures in mobile and internet/communications technology with the community at FailFAIRE, an open source, safe forum now in its third iteration (you can follow the Twitter stream at #failfaire). Quick presentations from organizations like the World Lung Foundation, MOTECH, UNICEF, and Witness centered around a specific project and how they eventually failed—or, looking back, perhaps were destined to fail from the beginning.

As an example, MOTECH created a mobile application to support community health workers in uploading data—sending alerts when a check-up was needed, medicine should be refilled, etc. They discovered, however, that many people, women especially, didn’t know how to use their phones at a level that the mobile app required. The health workers found the data upload to be cumbersome and time consuming. In hindsight, and perhaps an obvious lesson, that knowing your community and creating systems to reflect their needs is paramount.

There were repeated “aha” moments at FailFAIRE as the audience and the presenters saw threads of commonality and overlap. It reminds us that we can’t afford to let failure go unacknowledged, or unshared. David Domberger of Engineers Without Borders and a Skoll Scholar drives this home in his TEDxYCC talk in April of this year. He makes an often-thought, but perhaps not often-voiced statement: “the aid system is broken.”  His theory: aid organizations do not publically share, acknowledge, and analyze their missteps so there is a continuous circle of failed attempts at big problems. With an open culture about sharing failures, Engineers Without Borders has been able to approach solutions and understand problems in very different ways and for the last three years, EWB Canada has published an annual failure report. What could happen if all organizations shared their failures in such a public way?

But, are we celebrating failure too much? Jamer Hunt, the Director of Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons, warns us about making this too much of an esteem building exercise—like trophies for the last place team. Yes, let’s be candid about what we’re doing wrong, but let’s be careful not to let the rhetoric of failure become the norm. Failures can be painfully unforgiving, funders can lose faith in you, and your community may turn on you. While perhaps a bit too nuanced, Hunt proposes a failure spectrum, ranging from “abject failure”—think the BP oil spill—to “predicted failure”—smaller failures that lead to positive social change over time. He suggests that by using this range to clarify the types of failure we experience, we can figure out which failures can lead to learning and innovation that will do little good.

Harvard Business Review also recently published an entire issue of the magazine on failed companies, technologies, and innovations. In a recent HBR blogpost, the CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, Jeff Stibel, shared the details of their company “Failure Wall” in the breakroom. The purpose—share how you failed, what you learned, and sign your name. Admitting mistakes isn’t easy, but if you create a culture where people can do so, doesn’t that create an entirely different space for work with purpose and innovation? FailFAIRE is an open concept that you can even use at your own organization—bring your team into a room and create a safe forum to share those epic fails. It can only lead to a stronger discussion on current and future projects.

Failure for social innovators is a particularly difficult pill to swallow. Social change—that which touches people, the environment, peace—is not an area where any us of us wants to fail. There is a lot riding on our success. Scott Warren, a 2010 Echoing Green Fellow, openly shared a personal moment when a bad day led to thoughts of failure and failing his team. Scott’s post, along with FailFAIRE, the EWB failure reports, and the “Failure Wall” remind us that sharing failure, acknowledging when it happens, and learning from it is so much more worthwhile than hiding it. Moments of failure can also be moments of inflection. They give us all an opportunity to assess those “out-of-whack” periods in our own lives where nothing seemed to be working. By taking the time to share and reflect on our failures, we can remind ourselves of our “moments of obligation”—those moments when we were able to align what we really wanted to do in this world. 

So, wallow for a minute, but take your failure as a much bigger opportunity to move forward with more knowledge and a better understanding on how to succeed.

Share a failure with us. Organize a FailFAIRE for your sector, or for your own organization. Write about a failure on your blog, or on your website.