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Destigmatizing Failure on All Fronts

By Abbie Cohen




The private sector has long recognized failure as part of a much larger, innovative process. “Failing fast and hard” is even rewarded at some companies, because businesses recognize the learning opportunities that failures can propagate. Google is a perfect example; through their “20% time policy”, the company encourages its employees to spend 20% of their workweek on projects that are not necessarily related to their main job responsibilities. While this initiative obviously leads to some dead ends, it has also yielded major innovations for the company; Gmail and Google Maps were both a result of “20% time”.


Though not at the same level of intensity as the private sector, there are, of course, a few notable non-profit organizations that have started to embrace failure as well. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, launched their “Fail Forward” initiative in 2016, where grantees were encouraged to share challenges and lessons learned in order to advance their overall impact. Similarly, other organizations like the Acumen Fund and the Mozilla Foundation, have started to weave an openness to failure into their overall mission and core values. While it’s encouraging to see big non-profits emphasize the importance of learning from failure, organizations like these are the outliers in the social sector.


Certainly, part of the reason the for-profit sector is ahead in the process of normalizing failure stems from the inherent structure of the industry. A market-based approach encourages companies to take risks and to continuously identify ways to improve. Companies that develop products that best meet the needs of consumers are rewarded with profits and increased market shares.


Part of the challenge for the social sector is, of course, that it is structured much differently than the private sector. Instead of focusing on increasing profits, we focus on securing funding. Despite this critical difference, nonprofits can apply some of the business world’s approach to their own process of innovation. For instance, the for-profit industry accepts the process of creative destruction: the constant replacement of inefficient products and services with new and improved ones. Embracing creative destruction requires embracing failure as an inevitable part of a process. Moreover, by viewing failure as a necessity, they make room for failure; they set aside time for it, like Google’s 20% Policy. So how can the nonprofit sector make room for failure? What must we unlearn? In order to fully embrace failure as a means for innovation, a cultural shift needs to happen. The sector needs to unlearn:


The idea that progress is linear: Let’s modify the way we view change. Instead of conceptualizing progress as linear, like a set of stairs, let’s picture it as fluctuating, like a wave. There will inevitably be ups and downs but this doesn’t mean we aren’t getting closer to our goals.


The belief that failure is avoidable: Once we understand that failure is unavoidable, a naturally occurring phenomenon, and inherent to innovation, we lend ourselves permission to make mistakes. To some extent, failure is a sign of vitality and boundary pushing. The ultimate failure would be not learning from the mistakes we make.


The emphasis on metrics over learning: We must continue to push the boundaries of monitoring, evaluation and learning. When we place too much value on meeting quantitative metrics, we can become risk averse or hesitant to take chances. Let’s internalize that metrics are only one piece of the puzzle.


The belief that the social sector doesn’t have space to innovate: While there may not be an abundance of resources like time or money in the nonprofit sphere, there is ample amount of passion and dedication to solving social issues. How can we rethink our organizational approach to allow for more reflection? How do we rearrange our day-to-day to allow space for more brainstorming? We don’t necessarily need to wait for unrestricted funding to innovate; we can think outside of the box with the resources we already have.


Check out our new resource, Failure Forest, where we explore how nature offers guidance for navigating through our own failures.


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