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!

Intelligent Failure in Practice: Fail Forward 2014

wknzw8 (1)With the Fail Forward 2014 conference fast approaching, I wanted to share some of the inspiring and formative theories of change behind the conference.

We’ve brought together some of the leading thought-leaders on intelligent failure for one stimulating and engaging day to help us develop effective tools and practices so that when a failure inevitably happens (and it will!), those experiences become opportunities for learning, adaptation, and so much more.

Below are highlights from a few of our thought-leaders who offer uniquely forward-thinking approaches to failure, as they work to transform our mindsets, workplaces and society away from fear of failure and toward productive failure. Here is a preparatory ‘crash course on intelligent failure’ with key insights from their work:

Dr. Brian Goldman

Our keynote speaker, Dr. Brian Goldman, is a highly regarded Toronto emergency room physician who is on a lifelong campaign to confront medical errors and create a culture of safety for patients. His keen observations about the culture of medicine apply to organizations everywhere and have us asking the question, “Do we really expect that doctors are always perfect or do we want a culture where they can be open about their mistakes and learn from them?” His TED Talk Doctors make mistakes. Can we talk about that? has reached nearly a million viewers and has moved countless individuals and organizations across sectors with his powerful message that failures need to be talked about if they are to be learned from.

Dr. Mandy Wintink: ‘Your Brain on Failure’

What happens in our brains and bodies when we experience failure? Dr. Mandy Wintink explains our learned and instinctive reactions to failure from a neuroscience perspective. She will lead participants through an exercise to experience and understand the physiological responses that trigger our defensive and dysfunctional reactions. Wintink’s approach offers effective strategies for dealing with these reactions to failure so that we can learn to respond more productively. 

The Risk Sandbox

Laurie Michaels, the founder of Open Road Alliance, and Tom Moir, a Safety-Risk Management Consultant, discuss the concept of ‘The Risk Sandbox’, an effective tool for understanding the dynamics of risk and failure in our work and mapping the current and desired areas for creativity, risk, and innovation. Most of us unconsciously avoid taking risks, largely because we just don’t understand how much and what kind of failure is acceptable in pursuit of innovation.  This session is about creating the space to take smart risks for increased performance, achieving ambitions, growing revenue, and the agility to stay relevant and competitive. Learn what’s possible if we understand what our risk tolerance truly is!

All we’re typically taught about failure is to avoid it at all costs. It’s time to change that. Intelligent failure plays a vital role in learning and innovation and is an essential skill in our uncertain and interconnected world. This is your crash course on how to fail well.

Hope to see you at Fail Forward 2014!

~ Ashley

To learn more about the practice of intelligent failure, attend the Fail Forward 2014 Conference, taking place on Wednesday, July 9th at MaRS Discovery District.*
*There are 30 spots remaining and to fill them, a special 20% discount is available. Register here with the code – 30Seats – for the discount.