Thriving on Failure

By Boss, Suzie | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Thriving on Failure


Boss, Suzie, Stanford Social Innovation Review


NONPROFIT MANAGEMENT

It seemed like a smart idea when four nonprofits with a shared focus on climate change came together to build an online platform for grassroots organizing. They had financial resources, passion, technical expertise, and time to devote to the project. Yet despite those advantages, the Climate Network sputtered. Within a year, the project was jettisoned.

End of story? Not exactly. This false start lives on as one of several "good failures" being showcased and analyzed on a new website called Admitting Failure. Launched in January by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada, Admitting Failure is intended "to catalyze a shift in the development sector to be more open to talking about and learning from failure," explains Ashley Good of EWB. "Failure's only bad when it's repeated."

It's no coincidence that an engineering organization is behind the site. "Engineers work from a problem-solving approach," Good says. "It's iterative-figuring out what works, what doesn't, and then trying it again."

On top of that, EWB approaches development work with a healthy dose of humility. "Our attitude is, you need to be open to trying others' ideas and not think you have it all figured out," says Good. "Admitting when you've done something wrong is part of that." Since 2008, EWB has been publishing failure reports about its own development projects in Africa "as a tool for us to learn about mistakes on the ground." The new site is an attempt to broaden that conversation across the development sector.

When development projects don't go as planned, "admitting failure is only the first step," says Good. "That doesn't change anything. But if you learn from what happened and integrate those lessons into your organization, then you're driving a culture shift."

Admitting Failure has generated plenty of buzz since the launch. So far, though, others have been slow to contribute their own stories (no whistle-blowing or finger-pointing is allowed). …

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