Last Friday, Media Impact Funders brought together technologists, journalists, philanthropists and innovators for a day-long conversation on the future of media and tech innovation. I had the honor facilitating a session on measuring impact with Greg Baldwin and Jay Backstrand from VolunteerMatch discussing how their approach to measuring impact over the past decade. Later in the morning, Laura Efurd of ZeroDivide, myself, and Greg Baldwin hosted an hour discussion on measuring impact with participants. I have an in-depth blog post about that coming up, but I wanted to touch on a theme that came up: “Fail early and often. Don’t be afraid of failure because it often helps uncover a better idea or approach.”
Today, I am at the COF Conference where I will have the honor of co-hosting a conversation on with esteemed colleagues Peter Sims, author of Little Bets and founder of BLKSHP and Casey Haskins who is the head of BLKSHP innovation who an expert in Systems Thinking. Peter writes about Casey’s work in Little Bets as a Colonel in the US Military and as head of instruction at West Point Academy. Our session will focus on BLK SHP Thinking Applied – an introduction to the basic tenets of Little Bets approach (experiment, play, immerse, define, reorient, and iterate) and how to apply to the philanthropy sector.
Peter shares a key insight that anyone, at any age, can become more creative if they’re willing to start trying things or what Peter calls ‘little bets,’ a loss that you determine you can afford to take before making a small bet. Being creative can lead to better outcomes, but nonprofits and the people who work for them must get rid of fear. “The antidote to these fears is simple. Make a small bet. Do things to learn what to do.” Peter summarizes research by Carol Dweck that talks about how people can shift their mindsets from “perfectionism” and the “fear of failure” to a growth mindset by taking small, incremental steps. The term “Black Sheep” comes from Brad Bird at Pixar – Black Sheep are people who are willing to challenge the status quo and think differently about problems – they are experts at placing Little Bets.
Talking about risk-taking and potential for failure is difficult in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, but having it part of an organization’s culture so it is free of stigma and that everyone learns is even harder. As a sector, we aren’t necessarily “Failure Friendly.” Some nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures, because they are concerned about how their funders might react. But many nonprofits understand that transparency about what works and what doesn’t is crucial to their eventual success.
I’m been curious about this in the nonprofit sector and researched it as part of writing, “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit” but I want to take a deeper dive to look at the practices. Are there nonprofits that have a culture of placing Little Bets or affordable losses and learning from them? Are there foundations funded initiatives or other efforts to encourage learning from failure in the nonprofit sector? What are some examples? Here’s a few.
1. The DoSomething Pink Boa FailFest
I’ve written a lot of DoSomething.Org’s culture of being data informed, but one thing they do is an internal “FailFest” about every six months. The idea behind FailFest isn’t to make anyone feel bad; its to learn. The message they want everyone in the organization to embrace: Failure itself isn’t something to feared or be ashamed of. Not trying something new, not admitting failure, not learning from a miss–that is the bad stuff.”
They have a specific method for this:
1. Everyone is welcome to present something on x topic related to something that didn’t work. Nobody is forced to present.
2. Attire. Presenters must wear the provided hot-pink feather boa.
3. Length. Presentations should be no longer than 10 minutes, followed by 2 minutes of Q&A from the group.
4. Presentations should cover 5 areas: (a) General overview: goal, history, timing of the failure; (b) What went right? (c) What went wrong? (d) Three things “I” learned about myself; (e) Three things DoSomething learned.
5. Twist. The “learnings” items must each have a metaphor. For example, you might show a photo of a celebrity or sing a song lyric or reference some other (funny) comp. This will help make the presentations less like speeches…and more silly.
It is an off-the-record session. Its open to all staff, interns, board members.
If want to learn more about how to roll your own failfest or failfaire, here’s some how-to advice.
2. Momsrising Joyful Funeral
Momsrising is a highly successful and creative organization that a network of people, united by the goal of building a more family-friendly America. It comes as no surprise that they are masters at placing little bets and learning from things are not working. One method they use is the “Joyful Funeral.” They understand that many of the new technologies they use require experimentation and learning – so they have established a process to take away shame. Simply, they say “It didn’t work, let’s give this technique a joyful funeral.” They will ask is it time to order the flowers? They will give the technique a formal burial and eulogy. During this reflection, many new ideas on how to pivot and iterate rise up.
3. Global Giving’s Honest Loser Award
During my book tour last year, I was lucky enough to host a discussion with staff at Global Giving in Washington, DC. We had a terrific conversation about how they have created an organizational culture where failure is accepted so they can reap the learning from it. Donna Callejon shared a story about their “Honest Loser Award” where a staff member gets to tell the story of something they tried in their program, something new, that didn’t work and what they learned from it.. They do this several times a year to encourage innovation and take the shame out of failure.
There are many, many methods for reflective practice in organizations that can be easily adapted by nonprofits to facilitate the discussion about failure or what hasn’t worked. Many organization’s incorporate “After Action Reviews” for their programs and events, but that it often evolves into the blame game. This might be a good opportunity to introduce the “Failure Bow” concept. Or start more simply with asking powerful questions – less what and more what if.
5. Sector-Wide Examples
For a “failure” or “mistake” to lead to learning for an organization, those who have organized Failfests in the nonprofit sector say it is critical to talk about failure aloud — and the leader in the organization lead it. In addition to nurturing a culture of creativity and reflection, unpacking failure without blame game helps build an understanding of what not to do in the future. The examples above illustrate how this can be done inside of an organization, but it is even more powerful when as set of nonprofits comes together to share what doesn’t work.
Fail Faire DC 2012 is a celebration of failure as a mark of innovation and risk-taking hosted by the World Bank. Think Ted-X style presentations of nonprofit professional failures. This even focused on what has gone wrong in ICT and international development. They encourage participants to not be ashamed and that “failure shows leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs.”
There are also several web sites that publish failure reports. Engineers Without Borders Canada, which works on engineering solutions for international development problems, publishes a “failure report” every year alongside its annual report. The examples that are illustrate how this development organization is placing little bets and taking affordable losses and has helped them be more creative and innovative. There is also Admitting Failure, to encourage people working in international development to share their stories of failure.
6. Irvine Foundation Arts Innovation Fund
California arts organizations conducted 28 experiments to achieve new relevance for audiences, communities and professional artists with support from The James Irvine Foundation. Here’s an overview of what they did and what they learned. The report also looks at what didn’t work and why – free of stigma. The report is presented as an interactive infographic.
Does your organization have an example of how it handles mistakes and creates learning? What are some of the best examples of sector wide approaches to failure and learning? What are some of the best examples in philanthropy? Please leave me a comment.