Learning to Fail Forward: the critical ingredient for innovation

failure-baggage

SiG Note: This article was originally published on August 17, 2014 on Resilient Reality. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author. 

On July 9, a couple hundred people gathered to explore a topic that carries a pretty hefty cultural stigma. It’s a subject we think about daily. We obsess, analyze and agonize over it. We are quick to blame politicians and public business leaders for it. We fear it. We deny it. We avoid it.

Ashley Good decided to confront it. Several years ago, Ashley founded Fail Forward with the vision to talk about, celebrate and learn from failure. She perceived a gap in organizational learning, particularly in the international development sector. This spurred her to promote the practice of “intelligent failure,” which Ashley defines as:

  1. Learning maximized and accelerated through the act of trial, error and communicating stories
  2. Innovation made possible by accepting a certain risk of failure inherent in new ideas and approaches

The inaugural Fail Forward conference, held in July 2014, opened the dialogue for how professionals can learn to fail intelligently. Participants were diverse, involving large auditing firms, niche consultancies, growing businesses, and community organizations. As a volunteer, I observed a day full of play, laughter, and storytelling. Stories from attendees revealed people’s sensitivity to failure and how failure is strongly shaped by our own perceptions. There was also widespread recognition that innovation and failure are closely linked.

Failfwd2014

Throughout the workshops, speeches and serendipitous conversations, I learned new methodologies and met some of the leading thinkers in intelligent failure, such as:

The Fail Forward Toolkit

Your one-stop shop on how to fail fast and fail smart. Tools and frameworks include: IDEO on Design Thinking, Purpose Capital on when to quit, pivot or persist, an Innovation and Risk Appetite Assessment, the list goes on…

Emergent Learning Tables

An awesome tool for learning is the Emergent Learning Table (ELT). ELTs are best used to tackle a situation that has no easy or obvious solution and requires more than one team to take action.

Applying collective learning to a large organization can be difficult. ELTs provide the structure and space to promote dialogue, advocacy and build feedback loops into implementation to improve outcomes. I found this tool particularly exciting as it connects well to Michael Quinn Patton’s work on developmental evaluation. As Jillaine Smith of 4Q Partners remarked during the conference: “people are working towards the same goal from different angles – either from a learning perspective, like 4Q, or an evaluative perspective, like developmental evaluation.”

There’s no learning without fun.  Ashley Good and Fail Forward participant get silly. c/o Billy Lee, Belight

There’s no learning without fun. Ashley Good and Fail Forward participant get silly. c/o Billy Lee, Belight

Business Schools and Failure

Mike Shaner, a business professor at St. Louis University, asked participants to complete a Performance Failure Appraisal (found on page 15 in the Fail Forward Toolkit). He also shared an awesome compendium of readings on leadership and failure (click the course readings button).

Thought Leaders Galore

Dr. Brian Goldman was the opening keynote speaker and set the stage for failure in the context of hospitals. It was both a sobering and awe-inspiring speech. Dr. Goldman helped participants to see that no one feels failure stronger than those responsible for human lives. Another doctor, Dr. Mandy Wintink spoke about neuroscience and our physiological reaction to failure.

Meanwhile, Open Road Alliance, one of the conference partners, is filling an unmet need in the world of philanthropy. Many projects that secure funding face unforeseen exogenous threats, which jeopardize the project’s ability to continue operating. Enter Open Road Alliance, who provides catalytic capital to cash-strapped high impact projects. Their work was recently featured in SSIR as Funding the Unforeseen. These three thought leaders are just a sample of the many in attendance at Fail Forward 2014.

What’s Next?

I hope this post has illuminated some of the rich learning opportunities available on intelligent failure. Most of these tools and methods are more fun to explore in a group. That’s why the Fail Forward team is starting a Toronto Meetup to kickstart a community of “failers.” Don’t live in Toronto? Be a part of a Fail Forward organizing team in cities across Ontario.

Fail Forward Team. c/o Billy Lee, Belighted

Fail Forward Team. c/o Billy Lee, Belighted

Special thanks to Ashley Good, Anna Smith and the other members of the organizing team for Fail Forward 2014. Congratulations to the partners who were willing to sponsor a conference with the word failure in it!

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About Devon Krainer

Devon was the Project Coordinator for SIX Summer School Vancouver 2014 and a researcher with SiG.

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