The power of failure

What if religious leaders gathered around a table and became totally honest about our failures and confessed the risks we took that backfired? Would that create a more accountable, more experimental leadership environment...or would we just hide?

Sarika Bansil writes in the NYT Opinionator blog about the value that leaders of major non-profit charities gain from learning from failure, but first one has to admit it.

Seven years ago, the consulting group Bridgespan presented details on the performance of several prestigious nonprofits. Nearly all of them had one thing in common — failure. These organizations had a point at which they struggled financially, stalled on a project or experienced high rates of attrition. “Everyone in the room had the same response, which was relief,” said Paul Schmitz, the chief executive of the nonprofit Public Allies. “It was good to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling with these things.”

As in any field, people who work in nonprofits, social enterprises, development agencies, and foundations experience failure on a regular basis. People make hiring and budgeting mistakes. Shipments arrive late, or not at all. Organizations allow their missions to drift. Technologies prove inappropriate for the communities meant to benefit from them.

“We are working in some of the most difficult places in the world,” said Wayan Vota, a technology and information expert who organized the third annual FAILFaire conference two weeks ago in Washington. “But failure is literally the ‘f-word’ in development.” The idea behind this FAILFaire, which was hosted by the World Bank, was to highlight, even celebrate, instances of failure in the field of social change as an integral part of the process of innovation and, ultimately, progress.

Some nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures, partially for fear of donor reaction. But most acknowledge that transparency about what works and what doesn’t is crucial to their eventual success.

“Not talking about [failure] is the worst thing you can do, as it means you’re not helping the rest of the organization learn from it,” said Jill Vialet, who runs the nonprofit Playworks. “It gives [the failure] a power and a weight that’s not only unnecessary, but damaging.” Vialet instead supports failing “out loud” and “forward,” meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself.

“Not talking about [failure] is the worst thing you can do, as it means you’re not helping the rest of the organization learn from it,” said Jill Vialet, who runs the nonprofit Playworks. “It gives [the failure] a power and a weight that’s not only unnecessary, but damaging.” Vialet instead supports failing “out loud” and “forward,” meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself.


Comments (1)

From A.A.'s "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" (this is from Step 7):

Then, in A.A., we looked and listened. Everywhere we saw failure and misery transformed by humility into priceless assets. We heard story after story of how humility had brought strength out of weakness. In every case, pain had been the price of admission into a new life. But this admission price had purchased more than we expected. It brought a measure of humility, which we soon discovered to be a healer of pain. We began to fear pain less, and desire humility more than ever.

Of course, you could also just go to Christianity's own source book:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; 24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: 27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; 28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: 29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.

Christians, after all, worship a God who deliberately took the form of a human being executed as a criminal....

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