Sparking the social R&D community

For the past few years I’ve been part of a growing community of social R&D practitioners. As the community comes together next week at the Spark conference, Jason asked me to reflect on the conversations I had at the August Practice Gathering, looking first for insight into how we might continue to cultivate an ecosystem for social R&D, and second, for things that practitioners may want to keep in mind as they develop their practice.

Social R&D practitioners mostly come from small organizations or small teams within big organizations. However, every single person has plans to make BIG change – in seeming denial that the world may see them as small potatoes. They’re all taking on Goliath.

To give social R&D practitioners a fighting chance, here are some things that organizations trying to support their work can keep in mind:

1. Help them mobilize others and create movements

It’s been my experience that the bigger you are the harder experimentation is because the pressure to perform gets stronger. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the most innovative practitioners find themselves in small, nimble groups.

Perhaps with this framing in mind it’s also not surprising that one of the most common conversations heard among these practitioners was how to make change as the small guy. Part of it is creating new knowledge and testing new models to figure out what works and what doesn’t. There is also such a need among this community to be able to act as an effective catalyst/facilitator: someone who is able to instill new practices, behaviours and habits in others so that the change can spread well beyond their interventions.

In this vein, I think it’s important for social R&D practitioners to see themselves as movement builders as well. We don’t create the change via discovery and invention alone; those we are able to catalyze into action do. To maximize practitioners’ impact, an ecosystem of support therefore requires access to influence over incentives, rewards and shape of the path (in reference to Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Switch). The question I left the practice gathering asking myself was “How might we apply our R&D practice to improve our ability to mobilize others?”

2. Invest in efforts that bring together actors across silos

The other common conversation I found myself in was how to bust silos and get groups working together. Silo busting expends a significant amount of time and resources, and is emotionally draining. It’s also one of the biggest barriers to scaling innovations that address complex or multi-level challenges.

A valuable shift that sector leaders could make in this regard would be to make initiatives human-centred (e.g. having disability services and homeless shelters entirely separate looks rather foolish if you start from a place of working with individuals who are homeless AND have disabilities) and give up ownership over your silo. We can’t be interested in getting credit for “just doing our job”. We need to make the work outcome focused (e.g. an organization can give access to capital and incentives to small businesses to hire the unemployed but if those businesses are unstable and close, then you are still simply creating short term unstable employment. They might have done their job perfectly, but the outcome wasn’t realized). Also important is the notion of nothing for us without us; it should go without saying that those we are trying to serve be involved in the solution.

These are some of the principles that social R&D practitioners spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy socializing. With stronger organization-wide adoption, practitioners could redouble efforts to generate new knowledge and inventions, and help create conditions within organizations for the production of high quality social innovations.

To Social R&D practitioners: my days (and some nights) are spent thinking about failure: how to predict, detect, avoid, as well as create room for the kinds of failure necessary for experimentation. Given this focus, I want to close with a couple of thoughts on potential failure modes for this group that I heard during the August Practice Gathering.

First, we are a busy group. Huge ambitions mean our time and resources will never be enough. One risk I see for this group is we get so busy we end up implementing all the time. It’s so easy to get caught up in the doing/operational mindset because there is always so much to get done.  Given this bias I think it’s important to carve out time to reflect, imagine, make space for connections and look up from the laptop. Otherwise the interesting, non-obvious possibilities and opportunities might pass us all by in our drive to get to the goal. Following some of the reflective practice models that CKX is exploring is a good step, as are regular check-ins with other practitioners.

Second, we need to examine the problems we are trying to solve and make sure we get the problem statement right ( honing it and pivoting as it changes via experimentation).

Ajmal Sataar from Inspire Nunavut spoke about how framing the problem as: “How do we train these people to be entrepreneurs?” is okay, but it’s way better to think: “How can we create the environment for young people to thrive with entrepreneurship as a vehicle?” I thought that was just brilliant. Playing this back more broadly, how do social R&D practitioners not only try to strengthen program and services, but also create the conditions where vulnerable populations feel able to come up with their own social innovations?


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.

Why Failure?


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.

Intelligent FailureFailForward_Logo (2)

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.


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.

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