How the forest can teach us everything we need to know about failure
It doesn’t matter how much we murmur the reassurance that failure is an opportunity for growth; in the social sector, failure is still shrouded in taboo. Perhaps failure feels more grave in the social sphere because of the high stakes at play or because it is still a minority of funders that are permissive of, let alone encouraging of, the failure that comes with experimentation. Perhaps it is also our societal beliefs that progress is linear, that growth is inevitable, and thus that failure always represents a reversal.
We need new imagery not only for failure, but also for growth and progress, that illuminate their cyclical, rhythmic, and sometimes erratic natures. What better teacher than nature, and what better provider of imagery than the forest? Along with these elemental metaphors, we provide questions that can support teams to grow through failure.
Learning from Nature
Click on a metaphor or keep scrolling to learn more about how nature can teach us about failure and to see questions to help guide your team's next reflective discussion.
Whether we recognize it as such or not, failure is a prerequisite for our success. When we deny ourselves the right to fail, we deny ourselves the ability to learn how to do better. A fear of failure prevents us from exploring unfamiliar concepts and ultimately hinders our creativity. Expanding our impact through innovation requires an environment in which creativity can freely and safely flourish, a space in which failure is embraced.
Even tried and tested models fail regularly
There is no model more tried and tested than germination – after all if it wasn’t a reliable model, animal life on earth would not exist. And yet, a certain percentage of seeds do not germinate, with the failure rates dependent on the species of plant, quality of seed, and environmental conditions. Like these unsprouted seeds, even tried and tested models benefit from attuned learning about the ever-changing interplay between the model and its environment. Nothing is static in nature, or in the context in which our social interventions take place. When we stumble or an idea flops, we are given the chance to reflect and adjust.
Water.org, an organization dedicated to improving access to safe water and sanitation across the global South, struggled in its early years to achieve impact at scale. Thinking they were tackling the problem at its source, the group initially focused on building wells and other infrastructure in communities. However, Water.org soon realized that this was not a sustainable option, as such projects are not only costly but they overlook the fact that there are often multiple, concurrent drivers of water insecurity. Learning why their initial efforts failed allowed Water.org to adapt their strategy to reflect their newfound understanding of the situation. Among other things, they shifted to a social enterprise model, worked with local partners to design more culturally appropriate toilets, and put mobile apps in the hands of users of facilities.
Questions to Ask:
Why did this not go as planned?
What worked well?
What should we avoid doing next time?
What should we continue doing?
How do we move forward?
Our past failures act as compost for new growth
When an animal or plant dies, it decomposes and returns vital nutrients to the soil beneath it. In nature, death works to create new life. Similarly, what appears to be a failure now can ferment over time and act as compost for growth down the line. Progress isn’t always linear. Change is often brewing beneath the surface, making it difficult to determine if something is a failure or really a success.
Political activist and American scholar, Mary Frances Berry spent her career advocating for social justice. Berry wrote multiple books in which she discusses the positive reverberations that failure can create, using the civil rights movement as an example. She argues that challenges like the passage of restrictive laws or the assassination of social leaders, ultimately worked to galvanize the movement and bring about significant change. For instance, MLK’s death in 1968, in addition to being a human tragedy, felt like a major setback for civil rights, but ultimately helped to advance the movement by increasing public awareness for social justice and heightening activism. King continues to influence activists for social change around the world, through his legacy of nonviolent resistance.
Ultimately, Berry understands not all progressive movements or acts of resistance will alter society, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. This same line of thought could (and should!) be applied to the social sector. Not all programs will yield a positive and monumental impact, but our failures can pave the way for future growth.
Questions to Ask:
What do we imagine the impacts of this situation will be further down the road (in 1 month, 6 months, 1 year? 5 years?)
How will this setback contribute to our growth?
Like fire, failure can pave the way for future growth
Despite the inherent destruction of fires, some environments actually benefit from periodic burns because they clear out dead, organic material and return vital nutrients to the soil. Like fire, systems level failure is a naturally occurring phenomenon that feels disruptive but ultimately paves the way for future growth.
Sometimes, failure can lead us to a necessary paradigm shift. Consider the social sector’s quest to overcome white supremacy or development’s goal of decolonization. These shifts in thinking only came after decades of failure and ineffectiveness. In this case, the collapse of an entire system made room for new, more informed approaches to social change.
Failing provides an opportunity to reevaluate our goals and start fresh with a new perspective. Discovering what doesn’t work can help us to shift our mindset and explore new areas of thought.
Questions to Ask:
What old assumptions can we let go of?
What can we learn from others' failures in this area?
How can we shift our thinking for the future?
What old approaches can we lay to rest?
Do we need to rethink our initial goals?
Luck is an inherent aspect of growth in all forms of nature
Every year, Earth’s trees release billions of pollen grains into the air with the hope that a few will hit their targets. Trees know that not all pollen will bring new growth, signifying nature’s understanding that there is a certain amount of luck needed in order to create something new. Similarly, not all of our ideas will yield major innovations, and that’s okay. Sometimes, our lack of success can be attributed to external factors, like timing that reach beyond our control.
Conservation in eastern and southern Africa over the past 30 years shows us just how important timing can be. Community based conservation (CBC) efforts call for the transfer of control over wildlife’s value from governments to rural communities in order to incentivize preservation. This model is oftentimes more effective than state led initiatives but still faced significant barriers throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, mainly due to political leaders’ resistance to devolve rights over natural resources to local communities. Luckily, things have changed since then; community based conservation expanded its scope considerably in some countries, largely as a result of supportive policy provisions coupled with private sector support. It’s not that the CBC model was ineffective or needed to be altered, but the timing wasn’t quite right in the 90’s and 2000’s.
When we acknowledge that a certain amount of our success requires good timing and a bit of pure luck, we release ourselves from the unnecessary pressure that stems from a fear of failure.
Questions to Ask:
What external factors players played a part in getting us here?
How much control do we realistically have over these factors?
What factors do we have control over?
Destigmatizing Failure on All Fronts
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.
As a sector, we must commit to unlearning:
The idea that progress is linear.
The emphasis on metrics over learning
The belief that failure is avoidable
The idea that the social sector doesn't have space to innovate