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.