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.
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:
- 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.
- Become accountable to your beneficiaries, not your funders. This will make it easier to admit and share your failures.
- Fail fast and fail cheap. Prototyping is way less risky than rolling out a big, fat, expensive flop.
- 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):
- Why success always starts with failure: how to recognize failure, good and bad ways to react to mistakes, and how to create safe spaces to fail
- Good fail, bad fail: what made Caterpillar and unmade Enron: why it’s important to learn from others’ mistakes
- You are certainly not your job: A fascinating take on personal failure at work and why it’s not the end of the world
So what are you waiting for? Go forth and fail! And then come back and tell us all about it.
Here are a few great articles I’ve read recently on different models of leadership that follow the tenet ‘the responsibility of a leader is to create more leaders’, instead of thinking about a leader as someone who’s always at the front of the pack, making decisions & admitting no wrong.
- Leadership in the age of complexity: moving from leader as hero to leader as host. This 2002 interview with Margaret Wheatley is also an interesting read.
- On humility and being wrong: a great Forbes piece on finding a more authentic kind of leadership, where everyone at every level in an organization is a leader, and where total honesty is crucial
- Do you want the good news first? Thomas Friedman on how to be a great leader, you “‘have to think of yourself not as a designer but as a gardener” — seeding, nurturing, inspiring, cultivating the ideas coming from below, and then making sure people execute them’.
And a couple nice little examples of collective leadership in action:
- School to be led by teachers: A school in Maine moves to a cooperative leadership style, ditching their principal in favour of a team of teachers
- Why there are no bosses at Valve: the million dollar company with no managers. One of the more fascinating reads I’ve come across lately is their staff handbook, which they’ve recently made public.
Update: I also wrote a more detailed version of this blog for the Guardian website: Non-hierarchical structures: could it work for you?
Lately there’s been some buzz about how us kids today are working in very different ways than more established entrepreneurs, leaders and campaigners.
According to people who write about these sorts of things, we’re more collaborative, less comfortable with hierarchy and top-down decision-making, more likely to change jobs and more ready to embrace creative chaos of collective working. And as we change how we organise ourselves, we’re slowly shaping the landscape around us too.
From my personal experience, this rings absolutely true. The places I’ve loved working most have been where everyone got involved in decision-making and had a stake in the success of the project, and the ones I’ve struggled in the most have been rigidly hierarchical. I would far prefer to embrace a little uncertainty and even confusion than feel like I’m not an equal partner in whatever I’m doing.
The organisation that I founded five years ago, the Otesha Project UK, has spent the past year transitioning to a flat structure. We were always pretty collaborative, but decision-making authority and hierarchies of responsibility definitely existed.
During this process we’ve learned a lot about what needs to be in place to make collaborative working healthy and productive, rather than simply chaotic.
What does it take to make this work?
Will the caveat that we’re in an ongoing process and haven’t nearly finished learning, here’s what I see as crucial to the success of any collaborative venture:
A commitment to process. Developing & refining internal processes can seem long, tedious and beside the point. When held up against the incredibly urgent and important work of fulfilling your social mission, figuring out how meetings should be held or salary structures decided can seem like a distraction from the ‘real’ work. And yet, if you don’t spend time and energy thinking about these things, any collaborative venture is likely to become rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings, and won’t have the systems in place to function well over the long run. Reading this article from the founder of a non-hierarchical company (Bill Witherspoon of The Sky Factory) you can see how often he mentions team meetings, decision-making and training policies.
Everyone on board. Everyone who matters needs to be involved from the start, and everyone needs to be committed to investing the development time needed to ensure smooth working later down the line. In my experience, every single member of staff needed to have immense amounts of trust for other members of the team, enthusiasm for our collective experiment, and love for our work. Trustees and other key stakeholders (including investors or funders if applicable) should also be involved as early as possible.
Patience and flexibility. It will take time. And things will go wrong. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between something that’s not working and something that simply needs more time. If you’re transitioning away from a hierarchical structure, have lots of patience with yourself and other team members. Much like other times of organisational transition, it takes time to adapt to new ways of working.
Clarity in decision-making. Especially important for when tricky decisions come up and the team just can’t agree on what to do. In these cases, without a clear process there will be a tendency for some team members to pull rank or exercise informal influence, which just leads to invisible power structures. At Otesha, we know that if we can’t reach consensus as a team after several tries with different facilitators, then we pass the decision-making authority up to the board. This hasn’t happened yet and we hope it never will, but it’s essential to know that a lack of consensus won’t ever be able to cripple our ability to get our work done.
Clarity in roles. Since shared responsibility inevitably leads to more bleed amongst roles, the more clarity you can embed from the outset the better. Especially when it comes to the ‘boring’ administrative tasks. At Otesha, all co-directors have a core administrative role, from HR to finance to office management, that rotates around every two years. We also have a rule that no voluntary or paid role will ever be purely administrative.
A team of great communicators. Prioritize team training in anything that builds communication, listening and facilitation skills. You will all need them.
A strategy for growth. Collaborative working is easy when teams are small. At Otesha, as we’ve grown from 6 staff members to 10 total (5 co-directors and 5 learning roles without administrative responsibilities), we’re already starting to see the need to adapt our decision-making model for more efficiency. As we continue to grow, we’ll need to find ways of sharing information and ownership without involving every single person in every single decision.
Overall, our transition to a flat structure has been a really exciting adventure, one that’s aligned our working style with our ethos and values. The whole team feels a much stronger sense of ownership for not just their direct work but for the organisation as a whole. And for me, as the former Executive Director, it’s been amazing to share the workload, celebrate successes and talk through challenges with 4 other co-directors, knowing that we all take equal responsibility for the outcome of any decision, big or small.