The f-word: on failing forwards

Engineers Without Borders bravely kick-started a much-needed conversation when they created their first Annual Failure Report in 2008, followed by the launch of the Admitting Failure website in 2011. Since then the conversation has been opening up, propelled by some interesting initiatives like failcamp and a couple of great failure-themed Ted talks, but, at least in my humble opinion, not nearly fast enough or wide enough.

The word ‘failure’ still causes a deep, uncomfortable cringe in most of us, with the result that too many individuals and organizations are trying to bury our mistakes and missteps deep underground instead of inviting them out into the light to take a good, hard look and learn some much-needed lessons.

Why failure is a good thing

Social change is a messy process. Why in the world do any of us think we’re going to get it right the first time? Putting these unbelievable expectations on ourselves doesn’t just weigh heavily on us (contributing to stress and burnout) but it’s not helpful for the process of innovation. New ideas need to be tested, refined, tested again, refined, tested again …. you get the picture. This iterative model necessarily involves talking about what isn’t working.

Recently I read a great story about Sara Blakely (the entrepreneur who invented Spanx), shared in this Forbes article, about how Sara’s father asked her every day “what did you fail at today?” and expected an answer. The lesson here is that everyone who’s trying hard enough is also getting it wrong sometimes.

Why are we selfishly keeping our failures to ourselves?

So we need to get okay with being unsuccessful sometimes. We also need to start talking and sharing. The world needs to know about your ideas that have fallen flat – otherwise some other organization is going to try the same thing and waste their time, energy and money on something that you know full well won’t work. If they knew what you knew, they could use your failure as a starting point and have a much better chance of success.

In the game of making the world a bit better than it was the day before, whether that means averting catastrophic climate change, fighting for social justice or revitalizing local communities, when one idea wins, we all win. Sharing our successes and – crucially – our failures is the very best way to speed up this process of social change.

Creative destruction – failure as a natural process

Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet social entrepreneur and ‘conscious closure’ expert Vanessa Reid at an Art of Hosting training in England. Vanessa’s led amazing organizations like Santropol Roulant through times of change and transition, and she’s also become a bit of an accidental expert in knowing when it’s time for a project or idea to come to an end so that something else can take its place. This idea of creative destruction is really powerful.

In a workshop, Vanessa talked about the Ecocycle model, which uses the natural cycles of a forest to illustrate the phases that organizations, projects and campaigns go through. There is a part of the cycle called creative destruction, where old ideas die so that new ones can be born. Much like certain seeds that only germinate within the intense heat of forest fires and plants that only grow in ash-rich soil, some ideas and projects will never be able to flourish until others have created space. The beauty of this place of destruction and renewal is that it’s where so much useful learning happens. Failure is only disastrous if we don’t learn from it – as individuals, within our organizations, and throughout the whole systems we work within.

How to fail well

One of my favourite reads on the EWB website is Four Ideas for Failing Successfully. You should read the whole article because it’s great, but here are the core nuggets of the argument:

  1. In complex systems failure is often unavoidable. Set the expectation with your funders, staff, partners and other stakeholders that learning from failure is a part of the work. Say it explicitly.
  2. Become accountable to your beneficiaries, not your funders. This will make it easier to admit and share your failures.
  3. Fail fast and fail cheap. Prototyping is way less risky than rolling out a big, fat, expensive flop.
  4. Take responsibility your own failures. If you spend time pointing the finger to external factors, you won’t get the chance to learn what you could have done differently.

And some more great reads on failure (in case you just can’t get enough):

So what are you waiting for? Go forth and fail! And then come back and tell us all about it.


Tags: ,

About lizmcdowell

I am a strategist, facilitator, social entrepreneur, campaigner and occasional tetra-pak wallet-maker. Learn more about me at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: