Learning to Fail Forward: the critical ingredient for innovation


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.


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!

Where the Magic Happens: Highlights from SIX

Key learnings from places of vulnerability, emergence & gratitude
C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

During the close of the seventh annual SIX Summer School, 150 bright-eyed participants chatted excitedly in a room overlooking Vancouver’s False Creek, a scenic inlet separating downtown Vancouver from the shores of Vanier Park and Fairview. The organizers shared their final words. Six ambassadors — participants chosen to witness key themes — offered concluding insights on empathy, empowerment, courage, beauty, power and love, and generations. The room’s energy was almost palpable. Things were coming to a close

As the coordinator of the Summer School and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had the opportunity to offer my own final words. The thoughts I shared were those of boundless gratitude. I admitted that the largest event I could recall organizing was my twenty-fourth birthday party, for this I prepare the right decoration using inexpensive table runners which are perfect for this purpose. The jump from local social planner to lead coordinator of an international conference was not part of the career plan. And yet the faith my supervisors placed in me opened up the opportunity for me to dive into something completely unknown. As I stood overlooking the crowd, knowing that my team had co-piloted this event to success, I felt deeply humbled.

A month following, my sentiment of thankfulness is the same. In this post, I offer four of my personal highlights from the global conference and the week’s flurry of concurrent social innovation events.

Creating the Conditions for Social Innovation
C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

Our visionary maestro, Al Etmanski, guided the SIX organizing team on a journey to “get social innovation into Canada’s water supply.” Al, along with Tim Draimin and Cheryl Rose, perceived the global SIX Summer School as a unique opportunity for Canada – our nation’s time had come.

The SIX Summer School created the conditions for an international group of radical doers and thinkers to convene with local and regional changemakers. From government and activist organizations through to businesses and foundations, Canadians of all stripes participated in SIX, gaining new connections and insights. It was through intentionally linking local Canadians with global practitioners that some of the greatest value of SIX and Social Innovation Week was realized.

Vulnerability is the secret sauce

In the early days of developing the conference program, the Canadian team was bent on creating something different. Our team had the privilege of attending numerous conferences and we knew we didn’t want to simply create a container for the same conversations. We wanted to shake things up! We wanted people to feel a little uncomfortable. That is where the magic happens…

Where the magic happensAlthough the conference program had three themes – society, sector and self – “the self was our secret sauce,” as BCPSI partner Ken Gauthier identified.

During the first full day of SIX, participants were welcomed with the local traditions of the Musqueam People, involving a purifying cedar brushing ceremony and evocative song and dance. The opening plenary was a deep exploration into vulnerability, led by two of Canada’s leading social innovation thinkers, Frances Westley and Vickie Cammack. The visceral cultural experience and thought-provoking morning dialogue were designed to open participants’ hearts and minds to vulnerability. Empathy, humility, and honesty with oneself lay the groundwork for understanding how to make change.

“If we are afraid of our desert places then we become more afraid of the vulnerability outside ourselves — of the other” – Frances Westley 

Putting Faith in Emergence

In order to execute on Al’s grand vision for SIX Summer School Vancouver and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had to put great faith in my team, our 22 partner organizations, my own abilities, and the elusive magic that is emergence. I believe emergence is about letting go of control and expectations and allowing ideas and actions to happen organically. When you make room for people to animate a space, you empower them to create something awesome – truly awe-inspiring. It was our team’s responsibility to highlight the opportunities of SIX for innovative organizations, embrace ambiguity, and allow the cultural norms of our partners to inform the week’s direction.

Boundless Gratitude

Most importantly, what stays with me is the gratefulness I feel for working with so many incredible people. Our partner organizations could not have been more creative, thoughtful, positive and driven to make Social Innovation Week the success that it was.

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

As I move on from my role, I will reflect fondly on the time when hundreds of Canadian and international leaders came together to celebrate social change. Now, more than ever, I believe that we can learn more together by learning from one another. Together we can start to understand where to leap next.

Who organizes SIX Summer Schools?

Since 2007, each Summer School has been co-organized by the global partner, Social Innovation Exchange, and a local in-country partner. This year, there were two local partners – BC Partners for Social Impact (#BCPSI) and Social Innovation Generation (SiG), representing British Columbia and Canada respectively.

We’re Hiring! Social Innovation Generation (SiG) Communications Intern

Organization: MaRS Discovery District
Industry: Not-for-profit
# of Positions: 1
Position: Communications Intern

Posted: Dec 12, 2013
Application Deadline: Jan 03, 2014
Start Date: Feb 03, 2014
Term of Internship: 9 months

Address: 101 College Street, Suite 100,
Toronto, ON, M5G 1L7

Job Description:

Social Innovation Generation (SiG) is a collaborative partnership comprised of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the University of Waterloo, the MaRS Centre in Toronto, and the PLAN Institute. SiG believes that complex, persistent, and “wicked” social and ecological problems can be solved. Our focus is enhancing Canada’s resilience by engaging the creativity and resources of all sectors to collaborate on social innovations that have impact, durability, and scale. Visit our website for more information.

SiG National is looking for an Intern to contribute to its team. To allow social innovations to flourish, the SiG intern will contribute to our goal to support whole systems change through changing the broader economic, cultural, and policy context in Canada.

Reporting to the Communications Manager, the Intern will have a broad portfolio of responsibilities, engaging across program related activities, with a strong focus on communications, educational materials development, promotional activities and social media. With a small team around you, this is a terrific opportunity for you to build a portfolio of communications assets as you begin your career.

At a time when “the need and desire for change is profound,” this is an exciting opportunity to work in a dynamic professional context to experiment with a different way of telling a story, learning new practices for tipping systems, and helping to create new possibilities for building resilience.


  • Support the Communications Manager in the execution of a broad strategy to foster cross-sector understanding of social innovation processes;
  • Inspire and inform our organization and emerging communities through editorial coordination of the blog;
  • Support the development and marketing of our knowledge mobilization strategy;
  • Drive engagement with SiG online platforms – website, Knowledge Hub, social media communities;
  • Assist the Communications Manager in the marketing strategy, publication and dissemination of SiG knowledge products;
  • Actively engage online networks in the development of social innovation understanding and applicability to Canada
  • Provide logistical support to development activities related to the Inspiring Action for Social Impact series including meeting coordination and research support;
  • Support lab development lead in research
  • Pursue self-directed projects as inspired that result in outstanding written, visual, or audio content; and
  • Other duties as assigned.

Minimum Education:


Mandatory Qualifications:

The successful candidate will demonstrate the following characteristics:

  • Demonstrated experience and/or ability in the development of communications products – audio and/or videoand/or written;
  • Excellent written and verbal communications skills;
  • Understanding of online community development and animation;
  • Interest in the fields of social innovation, public policy and finance;
  • Proven research capabilities;
  • Detail-oriented and self-motivated;
  • An openness to evolving responsibilities;
  • Strong organizational skills;
  • Ability to work independently and in teams; and
  • Proficiency at multitasking and prioritizing time and workload.

Additional Qualifications:

The following qualifications are considered an asset:

  • Demonstrable understanding of website processes, basic HTML, WordPress and other content platforms
  • Demonstrable understanding of design applications, particularly Adobe CS suite

Other Information:

Social Innovation Generation (National) is based at the MaRS Centre in downtown Toronto.

Employer Question #1:

Why does working for SiG appeal to you?

Employer Question #2:

What experiences in your past qualify you for this opportunity?

Employer Question #3:

What examples of social innovation in Canada or around the world inspire you?

To apply, please register on Career Edge and submit your application through Career Edge’s job posting “Social Innovation Generation(SiG)/ Communications Intern.”

Breakthrough Capitalism: “We are more than consumers, more than tax payers”

A UN Global Compact survey reported that 81% of CEOS believe sustainability issues have become part of their company’s strategy and operations.

Most people would see the survey as a positive sign for sustainable business. Volans’ Executive Chairman, John Elkington does not.

A few short weeks ago, John shared these survey findings to a crowd of Canadian business leaders and posed the question: if CEOs are ‘accounting’ for sustainability issues in their core business, why are we experiencing escalating pressures on our environmental, economic, political and social systems?


John Elkington speaks to business leaders in Toronto, Canada.

The Volans team believes that part of the answer rests on the shoulders of executive level corporate leadership. Around one thousand companies control half the value of all the world’s publicly listed organizations. The power of some of the largest corporations and their leaders has become colossal in magnitude.

In response to the expanding dominance of business, Volans catalyzed a movement called Breakthrough Capitalism. Breakthrough Capitalism is a global call to action for corporate leaders to “reboot” capitalism through radically re-envisioning their business models. Volans has hosted Breakthrough forums in Berlin, London, Singapore and most recently Toronto.

In early November, Canada’s Breakthrough Capitalism forum challenged Canadian business leaders to rethink the way they do business in context to increasing global complexity. In his opening address, John Elkington acknowledged the increasing linkages between systems such as the food-energy-water-finance nexus, where one system cannot be fully understood without considering the others.

Toronto’s event brought together leaders from a cross-section of industries including financial services, energy, consumer goods, food, health, media and retail. The day was heavy on interaction and light on speeches. It opened the space for candid dialogue, questioning and brainstorming. Participants were asked to understand their business in relation to projecting three future world scenarios: Breakdown, Change-as-usual, and Breakthrough as depicted in the video below.

Following a fairly morbid discussion, participants recognized that the Breakdown and Change-as-usual scenarios are one and the same. Both will result in over-consumption, resource depletion, widespread poverty, and failed governance. The only distinction is that Breakdown will reach systems collapse sooner. Consequently, managers were quick to agree that the only viable way forward is the Breakthrough scenario.


What does Breakthrough mean to Canadian Business Leaders?


1) Executive Leadership

All participants agreed that buy-in from the top is critical. One only has to look at the likes of Paul Polman at Unilever or Jochen Zeitz at Puma to understand that executive level leadership holds immense power over corporate strategy.

2) Aligning Language

From shared value to corporate social responsibility, conscious capitalism to constructive capitalism, corporate social innovation to sustainability, the field is a cacophony of competing language. It’s painfully ironic that each movement is attempting to achieve the same goal of making the world a better place. Participants accept that language needs to converge in order to shift the movement from the periphery to the mainstream.

3) Creating Opportunities to Act

During the afternoon, the forum broke out into four groups prepared to hack the assumptions and models driving their respective industries. These breakout groups gave attendees permission to dig deep into the heart of their business and posit potential solutions.


Hal Hamilton, founder of Sustainable Food Lab, facilitating a breakout session.

I.     Accountants

Generating a storm of new ideas and next steps, the accountants led the way for actionable solutions. Real time performance indicators, responsible resource stewardship, long-term thinking, and embedded sustainability education represented a handful of the accountant’s proposed objectives.

II.     Consumer Behaviour

Marketers wrestled with their dependence on ever-increasing consumption in order to meet their sales growth objectives. Group participants agreed that enabling consumers to align their social and environmental values with their purchases is the future of responsible consumer behavior.

III. & IV. Food

Solutions that bubbled up from the food systems group included creating a “sin food” tax, mitigating food waste, educating consumers, investing in local food, and collaborating along supply chains.


4) Personal Transformation

Although much needs to be done at the office, change must also start at home. Too often we ask the world to act differently and forget our own role in embracing the change we seek. It was widely recognized that we should be mindful of our own values and beliefs, and channel that energy beyond our workplace to permeate all aspects in our lives. Sandra Odendahl of RBC captured this spirit in her closing remarks: “We are more than consumers, more than tax payers. We are citizens.” As citizens, it is our duty and privilege to care for one another and support a healthy environment.


Sandra Odendahl

What Now?

It’s up to us – business leaders, civil society and government – to push one another forward. As the CEO of MaRS Discovery District, Ilse Treurnicht, declared, “It feels like the world expects more of us than we expect for ourselves.” Let’s cut loose from the status quo and rise to meet the demands of wicked problems. We are ready. It’s time for a breakthrough.

FACULTY POSITION OPENING – Social-Ecological Innovation

Date Posted: October 14, 2013

Region: Ontario

Institution: University of Waterloo

Discipline: Environmental Studies

Web Link: http://uwaterloo.ca/environment-resource-studies/

The Department of Environment and Resource Studies – ERS (http://uwaterloo.ca/environment-resource-studies/) invites applications for a tenured or tenure-track position at the Assistant or Associate Professor rank, in the area of social innovation for resilience in linked social-ecological systems, with a special emphasis on the role of social media in social innovation.

The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) (www.sig.uwaterloo.ca) is based in the Faculty of Environment with faculty members in the Department of Environment and Resource Studies and the School for Environment Enterprise and Development. This position will be based within the Department of Environment and Resource Studies. The successful candidate will join the WISIR interdisciplinary team of researchers focused on innovation in intractable social-ecological problem domains where the interface may include – but is not limited to – social and technical innovation and its impact on the transformation of a wide range of problem domains. Academic training in and experience with complexity theory, innovation theory, resilience theory and their application to linked social-ecological problem domains would be an asset.

Under the auspices of ERS, WISIR is currently initiating a new courses based on different topics as Master’s degree in social-ecological innovation, Security Certificate on security courses in Brisbane, geared at attracting change agents from private, public and not for profit organizations as well as researchers interested in the topic area. The successful candidate would have primary responsibility for teaching within this program. To that end, the critical skill a candidate needs is an ability to teach a course in the relationship between social media, social networks and innovation. The capacity to teach one or more of the following is highly desirable:

o Governance for Social-Ecological Innovation

o Social Finance

o System/Institutional Entrepreneurship

o Designing intervention processes for accelerating social-ecological innovation

The Department of Environment and Resource Studies offers an undergraduate program that admits over 100 students annually, the department already offers a dedicated master’s and a doctoral degree (combined admission of about 30 students annually). For four decades, the Department of Environment and Resource Studies has promoted and advanced transdisciplinary approaches to human-environment relations. Three broad conceptual themes guide our teaching, learning, and scholarly inquiry:

• assessing the theoretical foundations and practical implications of progress toward a sustainable society, and application of this analysis as a broad context for specific work;

• understanding socio-ecological interrelations as dynamic complex systems vulnerable to being over-stressed by human activities; and

• examining conventional and alternative social arrangements, including institutions and tools of governance, as means of improving human wellbeing and environmental responsibility.

WISIR was established in the Faculty of Environment in 2010. It is primarily a research institute, with a focus on:

• analyzing intractable problem domains as complex systems that are best understood by using a system perspective as well as a resilience framework to illuminate the dynamics of change and continuity

• understanding the dynamics of social innovation, including the origin of social inventions, how social inventions are disseminated and how they are scaled up to change the broader institutional context including the broad social, economic and cultural rules which govern our society and environment.

• understanding the roles and skills of social entrepreneurs, institutional entrepreneurs and policy entrepreneurs and how they interact to catalyze and support the dynamics of social innovation.

WISIR participates in Social Innovation Generation, a Canada wide initiative funded by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation to build the capacity for social innovation in Canada.

There are many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration at the University of Waterloo, which has increasing strength across faculties in complexity, resilience and innovation. ERS and WISIR work closely with such centers as the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation (WICI), the Centre for Ecosystem Resilience and Adaptation (ERA), the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship &Technology Centre (CBET), the Centre for Knowledge Integration (CKI) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

Applicants should have a PhD or equivalent; an active fundable research program relevant to a transdisciplinary approach as described in this ad; demonstrated ability in publishing in relevant peer-reviewed journals; and demonstrated commitment to and quality of teaching at all levels.

Applicants should submit a letter of application stating the nature of their interest in this position, career objectives, approach to learning and teaching (including a teaching portfolio of courses taught or would like to teach) and research goals. Accompanying that letter, applicants must include a current curriculum vita and a submission that identifies four referees and their addresses that may be contacted for references. Please also include selected and relevant recent publications.

Review of applications will begin November 15, 2013 and will continue until the position is filled. The application package should be sent via email to:

Lynda Connolly, Administrative Manager,

Department of Environment & Resource Studies,

University of Waterloo,

200 University Avenue West

Waterloo, ON, N2L 3G1, CANADA;

E-mail: connoll@uwaterloo.ca

Salary range will be commensurate with qualifications and experience. The appointment will be effective July 1, 2014.

All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be given priority. The University of Waterloo encourages applications from all qualified individuals, including women, members of visible minorities, native peoples, and persons with disabilities

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Building Capacity for Partnerships

Ros Tennyson has been in the business of partnerships for over 20 years. In her role as the Development Director of the Partnership Brokers Association, Ros delivers a comprehensive range of training courses designed to build the skills, confidence and competencies necessary to broker partnerships effectively. We’re excited that Ros will be moderating at the Social Enterprise World Forum in the breakout session, “Culture Shock: Engaging Others in Your Success.” Just in time for the forum’s launch next week, SiG had the opportunity to speak with Ros about developing partnership competencies for social change.

Why are partnerships helpful to creating social change?

Ros: If partnerships weren’t needed, they wouldn’t be necessary. In other words, if society worked the way we’d like it to work, we wouldn’t have any need for cross-sector collaboration. If each sector – government, business, civil society and international agencies – were able to function at their optimum capacity, then things would be fine. We would have a complex coherent world interrelated with each other in appropriate ways. The reality is that no one sector really functions particularly well. Most sectors are finding they are failing to deliver on their own goals and wider societal goals. So suddenly, the whole idea of working together to collaborate to make change seems extremely attractive.


How can we as individuals and organizations develop a more collaborative culture, particularly across sectors and continents, to address the systemic intractable issues of our society?

Ros: I think human nature is quite complex and there is a tendency to think that collaboration is just business as usual, straightforward. The tendency is to think:

Of course we’re all human beings, we get on with each other, we know how to make good relationships, therefore it shouldn’t be any kind of major problem to learn how to collaborate.

I believe the reality is quite different. The ability to break boundaries – to be boundary spanners requires quite a radical challenge to one’s assumptions and mindsets. One has to really question how one thinks about other sectors and countries in order to operate differently. I think certainly in the west, we’ve grown up with a certain culture of possessiveness, of thinking we have to know best, thinking we’re right. And actually we don’t necessarily know best and we’re not necessarily right. Actually a much more open and honest way to proceed is to see things as a dialogue, where everyone is discovering and learning how to do things, rather than some people thinking they have the answers and trying to coerce others into accepting their own point of view. It’s sounds like a complex answer but I think collaboration is not business as usual. It takes reframed skills and it takes the kind of people who are willing to adapt and move outside their own comfort zone perhaps, for the benefit of a bigger purpose. And actually when the chips are down – however liberal or liberated we think we are – we are all fond of our comfort zones. In fact, the challenge to change towards a genuinely more collaborative model is quite a big one.

Are there ways to prepare or hone the ability to be out of one’s comfort zone, as well as encourage other people to take that leap?

Ros: I’d describe it as both an art and a science. The art element is being able to envision something different, to know what you’re aspiring towards and therefore making the right journey to get to that goal. The goal has to be forward looking, future-looking. It has to be based on attentiveness, listening, intuition, on understanding what is needed now, on making the most of what you have, instead of some preconceived idea that you are trying to impose. That’s the art of it. But to do this well, art and intuition are not enough. You also have to be rigorous, technical, scientific, meticulous, business-like, astute, and persistent. These are very different kinds of attributes. So the ideal practitioner in this space, as a partnership broker or intermediary, will be able to see which of those things (art or science) they do naturally and work quite hard to develop the other side of themselves so they can do both.

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?

SEWFRos: I’ve been working partnership brokering for the last 20 years and only when I was invited by Social Innovation Generation to speak at a MaRS conference two years ago did I find myself in a room full of social innovators. As I started to hear people speak, I suddenly realized that I was amongst my peers. What I registered is that although my work is in the realm of partnership brokering, as an individual I’m basically a social innovator, so I feel very naturally drawn towards that world. I’m extremely excited to hear how much that world has developed in Canada, as social innovators seem very central in Canada. It does feel like a privilege to be in a room full of social innovators because I think the world really needs it. Of course, the big question for me is what is the interface between social innovation and partnership brokering and partnership development? Since the two worlds have similar qualities and are useful to one another, they seem to support, inform and reinforce each other.



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.


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.


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.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Labs Seeking Solutions

As society’s challenges become stickier, social innovators become more creative, collaborate in new ways, and experiment with different tools to address intractable problems such as water security, elder care, and youth unemployment.

kennisland2One such social innovator, Joeri van den Steenhoven, uses change/design labs as an approach for social change. As the founder of Kennisland, a Netherlands-based knowledge lab, Joeri has over a decade of experience building a knowledge society. With his recent move to Canada, Joeri now leads the Solutions Lab at MaRS Discovery District. Speaking at the upcoming Social Enterprise World Forum, Joeri shares his perspective on the promise and potential of change/design labs.

How do labs help solve intractable systemic problems?

Joeri: Today we face a wider range of social challenges and our current organizations can no longer match the complexity of these issues. Since governments and other institutions cannot do this work independently, labs act as support structures that can help connect these different stakeholders. If you consider the history of labs, labs have always been a group of people and a space outside of the core business taking a long-term approach to problem solving.

What specific social and environmental issues is the MaRS Solutions Lab aiming to address? Who is involved?

Joeri: The MaRS Solutions Lab works together with government, foundations, businesses, social entrepreneurs, academia, and communities to tackle complex social challenges and create systems change. Our lab will work on a limited number of challenges, one of which is chronic disease that the Ontario government has asked us to take on. One of the major threats to the future of our health system is chronic disease like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

What excites you most about taking a lab approach?

Joeri: I’m excited by the search for new answers. I also enjoy testing our ideas and gathering learning on how to implement and scale the most promising ideas. Labs are about thinking, doing and learning. Personally, learning is my favourite part of the process. If we look at how to scale an idea, the best strategy is through learning.

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

Joeri: The MaRS Solutions Lab is in its startup phase. After development of our theory of change, we are now building our team, methods, tools and network. It’s a very exciting time. I can relate to social enterprise, as it has that same entrepreneurial feeling. We need a business plan and to be able to convince our funders and investors of our strategy, as well as grow a strong team.

What role do you see social enterprise playing in labs and vice versa?

Joeri: Labs are looking for new answers and sometimes social enterprise has those answers or can help get to those answers. We live in a time where it’s no longer true that government can give us the solutions to our society’s problems.

The tremendous wave of social enterprise and the shift in people that do good, particularly on their own terms like through starting a social enterprise, is a very powerful movement.  Labs could help social enterprise tackle those challenges, as well as grow their market.

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?

SEWFJoeri: Firstly, I look forward to hearing about many new ideas and approaches from all kinds of social enterprises from across the world. I’m expecting a high-energy crowd and to be inspired by the ideas and people in the room. Second, I hope to learn from others working in the field of social innovation and labs. I’d like to share with them what Solutions Lab
is doing and what we might do together to generate
systemic change.


This blog is part of the Social Enterprise Spotlight series showcasing various social innovators speaking at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum taking place in Calgary on October 2 – 4. Learn more about the Social Enterprise World Forum here.


A focus on assets, not deficits leads to positive change

In his forty years working with impoverished American communities, John McKnight witnessed incredible social change at the grassroots. He discovered that the majority of the solutions to issues like unwanted teenage pregnancy and crime involved empowering local citizens and building relationships at the community level. Although social innovations disrupt the status quo in boundary-breaking and sector-spanning ways, change begins with the individual and their surrounding network.

Watch our interview with John McKnight to gain a community perspective on fostering social innovation.


John McKnight from Social Innovation Generation on Vimeo.

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Forming unlikely alliances for shared value

If we ever hope to navigate our complex and strained socio-economic landscape, we need to facilitate and initiate more meaningful ways of working together. Collaborations between disparate parties unlock doors and direct new resources towards enabling systems-level change.

Jocelyne Daw, founder of JS Daw & Associates,and a panelist at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum, is a champion of shared value and forger of partnerships. is a champion of shared value and forger of partnerships. Over the last 30 years, Jocelyne has built bridges between the corporate, non-profit and government sectors to create worthwhile and sustainable collaborations. While vacationing in Ontario, Jocelyne kindly shared some of her wisdom with SiG, presented in the Q&A below:

What led you to realize that partnerships are essential to creating shared value?
trent-severn waterway

Trent-severn waterway, a national historic sight of Canada administered
by Parks Canada

Jocelyne: My first experience highlighting the value of partnerships began at Parks Canada. While working in Peterborough Ontario, it became quite apparent that maintaining a park is a big undertaking. So big, it was beyond the scope of what our organization could take on alone. With this in mind, as well as recognizing that Canadians take great pride in their natural environment, I formed one of the first “Friends of Parks” groups in Canada. Through Friends of Parks, Parks Canada was able to tap into new resources such as partner organizations and volunteers, who also had a deep interest in park preservation. Following my initial exposure to the benefit of partnerships, I carried on as the founding executive director of the Canadian Parks Partnership, overseeing the formation of all “Friends of Parks” groups across Canada.

How do you create shared value now and could you offer an example?

A part of our work at JS Daw & Associates involves helping non-profits understand their value proposition. Charitable organizations often struggle at communicating what they have to offer. I assist non-profits in seeing their assets, not necessarily the ones on their balance sheet, but the intangible connections and influence derived from their relationship with the community. Through talking about these hidden community assets in a different way, non-profits can better use them to leverage business relationships in the community.

The other side of the coin is our work with corporations. Companies increasingly understand that they have to be more involved in the communities in which they operate. As a result, I support corporations in finding and forming relationships with non-profits and communities that can create shared value, typically through tackling an issue of mutual interest.

Math-Minds_logo_CMYKAn example of shared value is the Math Minds collaboration between Canadian Oil Sands, Jump Math, the University of Calgary, and Calgary Catholic School District. Math Minds is a 5-year initiative with the shared goal to enhance elementary numeracy in students and teachers. This multi-sector partnership would not have been possible without each member agreeing on the critical importance of early math literacy. Further into implementation, we invited other partners to collaborate like the Calgary Public Library.

What excites you most about the future of social enterprise?

In the traditional sense of the word, social enterprise is a non-profit starting a business. Nowadays we are increasingly seeing the roles being blurred between nonprofits and business, sometimes in the form of new social enterprises. How do we take social enterprise up to the next level and help people look at social problems as opportunities for business? We live in a resource-trapped world. The social issues are too big to ignore and it can’t just be one sector doing this anymore. We have to collaborate with a whole new mindset.

For this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum, you will be speaking on “Unlikely Alliances”. Why are unlikely alliances important and how might we go about forming and sustaining them for the long-term?

Jocelyne: For forming unlikely alliances, I’d advise organizations to be open to involving the unusual suspects. How can you look at things in new ways? Who would you work with? Think about what you are trying to achieve, and what strengths and assets you bring to the table.

People tend to silo the activity of gaining partners; however it is truly an integrated journey. Good intentions aren’t good enough. We have to work harder at knowing what we want to achieve. Through knowing what we offer and what we want to achieve, we can start to forge unlikely alliances. For unlikely alliances to sustain themselves, people have to feel the value of being there. When there is a higher purpose, people stay committed. 

The Social Enterprise Forum is a gathering of 1200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you most about attending the event?

SEWFJocelyne: I am especially excited for the incredible speaker lineup. Leaders are coming from all over the world to share their knowledge and expertise. I expect it’ll be an incredible networking experience. Looking at other great social enterprise forums, some are invitation-only like the Skoll World Forum, but this is an invitation for anyone who is passionate
about social enterprise and can just get to Calgary. 

This blog is part of the Social Enterprise Spotlight series showcasing various social innovators speaking at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum taking place in Calgary on October 2 – 4. Learn more about the Social Enterprise World Forum here.

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