Learning to Fail Forward: the critical ingredient for innovation

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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.

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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!

Why Failure?

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Ashley Good

“Failure is…any situation that teaches you a better way of doing something. Basically, anything you can learn from. For me, every failure has the potential to be a force for good.”

Let’s start simple. Why “failure?”

I have been asked this question almost daily since I started Fail Forward three years ago.

Clients: “Can’t we use something more positive? What about ‘lessons learned’ or ‘best practices’?”

Partners: “Shouldn’t we provide a range of word options that would be more widely palatable?”

My Mom: “But honey, doesn’t that make you a full-time failure?” (Okay, this one was a joke – my mom is awesome like that).

But really, why not use another word less steeped in emotions like shame or regret? My answer to all who are thinking along these lines is: you are right.

Failure is more than a tough word. It is emotive and physical: we have all felt the pain associated with it and perhaps wish we could forget or undo it. We work to delay that inevitable moment when it shows up again. But all of that is precisely the reason I continue to use the word “failure,” over many other less powerful options.

While the terms ‘lessons learned’ or ‘best practices’ have existed for years, we are still unable to speak openly, or have the honest conversations we need to have, about what is working and what is not. If we want to talk about our failures, we should talk about our failures – not our “achievement deficits” or other concepts that give space to skirt around what is actually important.

Moreover, I have an increasingly supported suspicion that euphemizing the experience of failure actually strengthens our fear of it, giving it a taboo status. Watered down terms might actually discourage us from getting to the conversations on risk-taking and innovation that we seek.

We need to pull up our pants and learn how to interact with failure more productively. Not by skirting around it or renaming it, but by acknowledging it, even appreciating what it can teach us, so we can keep moving forward.

When everyone speaks openly about failures, we can implicitly say: “If you have no failure to discuss, you are not being honest or you are not being innovative.” It is a paradigm shift. An acceptance of failure genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you are not under-performing if you fail; you are under-performing if you do not admit failure, because when we admit failure, we all learn from it.

This process of admitting and productively interacting with failure starts with the practice of intelligent failure.

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Intelligent failure is the intentional practice of productively reacting to failure. Since we are seldom taught how to fail, our instinctive reactions are usually defensive, dysfunctional, and generally do not serve us very well. The practice of intelligent failure involves building both the skills and a culture – for yourself or for your community – that can start turning those reactions around.

Personally and organizationally, this practice might mean reacting with appreciation for and curiosity about what was (or can be) learned when we, or those around us, fail.

It might involve creating a safe place where innovation and smart risk-taking are rewarded. It could also be communicating failures to others in a way that focuses on the learning opportunities.

Here are some easy practices from our guide, What We’ve Learned About Communicating Failure:

  1. Create a safe space for dialogue. Take the time to ask yourself and others why they do, or do not, feel safe discussing failures in your current context and explicitly design with the feedback you get. Do this each time.
  2. Suspend assumptions. Set ground rules that recognize when you or others share what they believe to be true: opinions need to be respected and different perspectives are relevant, useful, and valid.
  3. Internalize the locus of responsibility. Make it a ground rule to, or assign someone to, with care and respect, watch out for the behaviour of blaming factors you could not control. If you are practicing this alone, push for the courage to look at what you could have done. In a group, acknowledge that everyone has agency and everyone plays a part – no matter how small.
  4. Speak to the aspects of failure to which you contributed. This will be difficult – it goes against our natural confirmation bias – but you must watch blaming others to the best of your ability. You should only ever recognize the failure of another person if you genuinely wish to do so for their benefit and focus on how changes of behaviour could have created a different outcome.
  5. Target root causes. For example, instead of staying at the level of, “I made the wrong decision, which caused the failure,” take the time to ask why that decision was made. This looks more like, “I made this assumption based on these interactions or these experiences, but failed to notice this crucial piece for this reason which, in turn, caused me to make a decision that resulted in the failure.”

Intelligent failure is not about celebrating failure or even embracing it. Failure is not great. But it is also largely inevitable. Considering it is going to happen, we must transform our approach to failure. How could you come to understand failure in a more productive way?

Eddie Obeng talks about how the pace of change in today’s world has surpassed our ability to learn or have the knowledge needed to solve our most important challenges. We have to create space to experiment, figure out what works, and when something does not work, we need to learn and adapt as a result.  The ability to fail intelligently, whether personally or organizationally, empowers innovation and creativity and is an essential skill for coping with the increasingly complex challenges of our contemporary world.

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To learn more about the practice of intelligent failure, I invite you to attend the Fail Forward 2014 Conference, taking place on July 9th at MaRS Discovery District. Early Bird discounts are available for the first fifty registrants.

See also: Social Enterprise Spotlight on Fail Forward, an in-depth interview with Ashley Good.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Failing Forward

When we experience failure, we are forced to confront uncomfortable truths; that our abilities can fall short and we make mistakes. Through reflecting on our actions we can learn to let go, become more grounded, and see reality for what it is. As painful as the process may be, experiencing and learning from failure can build formidable resilience and empathy, qualities that are critical to social innovation. Ashley Good knows this better than most people. Through founding the consulting firm Fail Forward, Ashley helps organizations adopt a culture of learning from failure. This October, Ashley will be furthering the conversation during the Social Enterprise World Forum breakout session “Sharing Failure: Winning Strategies For Sharing Failure.” I had the good fortune to speak with Ashley on how failure is a force for good.

Why is reporting and sharing on failure so important for people, organizations and society?

AshleyGoodheadshotAshley: It comes as no surprise to anyone that failure is the best teacher. Anecdotally we know that and as kids we knew that too. We are hardwired to learn from failure. But something happens when we become adults, where the stakes get higher and we start surrounding ourselves with tasks that we already know how to do. We stop pushing ourselves to the edge of our capacities – where we really have the ability to accelerate our learning. So the idea of creating a conversation around failure, whether that’s in the not-for-profit or private sector, is an important one because it destigmatizes failure and makes it acceptable to fail. We allow ourselves the space to push ourselves. With the pace of change in the world, the ability to accelerate our learning is going to become an ever more important skill.

How can failure be used as a force for good?

Ashley: I have a bit of a different definition of failure than most people. I define it as any situation that teaches you a better way of doing something. Basically, anything you can learn from. For me, every failure has the potential to be a force for good. It’s our instinct to ignore, deny, blame or try to fix it before anyone else figures out that we’ve failed, but in fact those responses prevent us from maximizing our learning. Inherent in every failure is the opportunity to learn. Accepting a certain level of failure is the only means by which we feel safe trying new things, being creative and innovating.

Can you share a story about failure being used for positive change?

Ashley: I’m going to tell you a story about myself. Three years ago I started the site admittingfailure.com. The vision was to create a platform, almost a database, where people could submit their stories of failure and you could search by country, project type, etc. It would spark this new collaborative era where people involved in the social space could learn from each other. I imagined thousands and thousands of failures. Three years later, there are 32 stories of failure on the site, which you could imagine, was not the intended outcome. Funding was cut to the project six months in and I was jobless. This project and idea that I believed in and cared about so much just fell flat on its face. But of course the story doesn’t end there. Through this experience, I realized that my mistake was in misunderstanding the problem. The problem was not that people weren’t excited about the idea and wanted to engage with it – the problem was actually taking action. There was a huge gap in understanding the importance of discussing failure openly and taking action. This was the catalyst for starting Fail Forward: to bridge the gap between the theory that people buy into and being able to create individual and organizational culture change. I couldn’t have learned this lesson without trying and failing.

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What role does failure play in social enterprise?

Ashley: The vast majority of startups fail. There are so many entrepreneurs trying new things and most ideas are not going to work because it’s inherent in trying something new. You add the element of social change to the picture and all of sudden it gets even harder. You aren’t simply trying to keep your financials in the black; you are creating complex social change, which is inherently gray and difficult to measure. You need to be constantly aware that failure is possible at every moment when you’re trying to create social change. It’s the continuous adaptation that allows for success because you don’t have black and white measures of dollars coming in. You are always looking for ways that it’s working and ways that it isn’t and adapting on the fly.

What are you looking forward to in the next six months?

Ashley: I’m starting to get asked to speak more and more, which is really exciting. Just like admittingfailure.com was a catalyst for conversation, I see many of these speaking roles and conferences as a catalyst for generating conversations on failure in different areas. Obviously I’m looking forward to the social enterprise world forum. I’ll be speaking at the next PechaKucha in Toronto this Friday. I’m also in the early stages of hosting a failure event in Toronto sometime in 2014. It’d be great to put Toronto on the map as a hub of where this conversation is happening.

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The Social Enterprise World Forum is a gathering of 1,200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you about attending the event?

Ashley: I love events like these for bringing together the kinds of people that can push the conversation further. It’s in conversation and group gathering that we really get out what’s important and shape the narrative of the social entrepreneurship space.