27 February of 2014

Failure – a new approach?

by Sebastian Müller, Sander Nanne & Emre Kurt


NGOs and businesses are discovering new ways to deal with failure. This way they enable employees to bring in their own ideas, take risks and speak openly about mistakes.

“What are the words you associate when you think of the term: to fail?“, the blond woman asks. Her eyes wander through the room. It is packed with people. The answers: Sad! Fear! Making a fool out of yourself! Desperation!

The blond woman mentioned above is Ashley Good. She was one of the guest speakers at the “Fail Conference“ held in Oslo last June – one of many events of that type, organized all around the world. Obviously, there is a need to talk about failure: NGOs are writing failure reports to tell donors, why certain projects didn‘t succeed. More and more companies tend to speak openly about mistakes. There’s a new culture arising, where failing isn´t seen as something bad because there is a great chance to learn from it. But what is failure then – a curse or a blessing?

Failure conference

Members of the “Failure Conference” are actively involved (Courtesy of: Ashley Good)

Ashley Good’s work has received coverage in well-known media outlets, including the New York Times and the Guardian. It all started, however, with her personal experience with failure: Working for the non-profit humanitarian organization Engineers without Borders, she went to Ghana to help with agricultural development projects: “What I saw from this experience was a lot of amazing work on the ground, a lot of amazing people with great ideas, but also a lot of things that weren‘t working!“, she says. Due to the lack of possibilities to share those experiences, she founded the website “Admitting Failure“. “I intended it to be a space, where anyone could publish their failures and their learnings from it, so that we can all learn together.“  Six months into the project, however, only nine stories were published. Ironically enough, the webpage had failed.

Nevertheless her efforts catalyzed a lot of discussion about failure in the development sector. She did dozens of media interviews and became the topic of a great number of blogs. Moreover one lesson was clearly learned: “I started this site [Admitting Failures] thinking that people, who wanted to talk about their failures, really just needed a place to share them. That presumption proved wrong.“, Ashley Good remembers. “Yes, people want to share their stories, but there are so many incentives not to and we are really not taught how to share them in a way that‘s productive.“  Inspired and encouraged by all of this, she started her next project: “Fail Forward“.

In contrast to to her first webpage “Admitting Failures“ the new focus was on the gained insight: people have to learn how to deal with failure in a productive way! In order to achieve that, “Fail Forward“ is hosting failure conferences and helping organizations writing failure reports, a tool based on a method developed by Engineers without Borders. “It‘s very easy to misunderstand the failure report as a learning tool.“, Ashley Good stresses. Its most important benefit, however, is the creation of an organizational culture, where people feel safe talking about failures all the time, not only once a year when the report is published. “What matters is that this conversations about failures happens everyday between managers and the people, who are managed, and also between teams!“ This leads to an innovative way of thinking and entrepreneurial spirit, as employees have the space for bringing in their own ideas. But of course, in some ways the report also functions as a learning tool: writing about your failures gives you the time to reflect, understand the perspectives of others and trend failures, in order to see where faults are usually made. This means maximizing your learnings from your efforts!

Coming out of the development sector, she mostly works together with social enterprises and non-profit organizations, but more and more businesses are adapting the new way of thinking.


Ashley Good talks about the failure report (Courtesy of: Ashley Good)

One example is FINN.no, which owns one of the biggest websites in Norway. “We are trying to strengthen a culture that accepts failure and embraces learning.“, says Jens Hauglum, who is the Head of Innovation and has been one of the guest speakers at the same conference Ashley Good attended. He goes on by naming the four main values on which his company is based on: precision, tolerance, drive and spirit. “Especially precision and tolerance are relevant when it comes to strengthening a culture of learning from failure: tolerance is about accepting mistakes and giving feedback, precision is about learning and improvement.“, Hauglum explains. “Twice a year every individual gets constructive feedback by managers and colleagues, based on how they have adhered to these values. We also talk about failures at our monthly meetings. Last year our CEO talked about a failure he had made and the learnings derived from it. A truly culture-building activity!“

This corporate strategy demonstrates a new way of thinking: As role models, leaders are encouraging their employees to take risks and try something innovative, while learning along the way.

But not all companies are able to bridge the huge gap between theory and action. Ragner Bø has worked for several successful companies and knows about their business processes and certain problems. He is the founder of Cloud Media Services, and owned eight start-ups before. One of the basic ideas in the companies he started: “Make people take their own decisions, we allow people to do wrong things. But only once.” Learn more about  Bø’s experiences by watching the whole podcast.

Interview with Ragner Bo (Courtesy of: Sander Nanne)

The new trend of sharing failures seems infectious, not only for NGOs and businesses. Everyone has the chance to take part in the new failure revolution. Webpages like “mistakeville.com“ offer the opportunity to publish stories of personal failures, share and comment them. The huge variety of topics differs from “new job mistakes“ over “how not to buy your first home“ up to “beginner snowboard mistakes“. Sharing your experiences means preventing that your faults are repeated. What develops is a worldwide learning community.

It is easy to misunderstand this new culture as a celebration of failure. But this is missing the point. Even the well-known aphorism “Learn from your failures!“ is just one side of the ongoing revolution. It is important to keep one thing in mind: maximizing your learnings from failure, doesn‘t mean that you want to fail! Failure is and will always be unwanted. But it happens. Accepting this is crucial and leads to a new way of thinking, which is the door-opener for innovation. A world, where every single organization has a productive acceptance of certain levels of failure, provides space to think. Thinking different without the fear of failure and following punishment can change our world. Even if failure is a curse, it is not something we should avoid at any costs. If we handle it the right way, it will lead us to learnings, which are blessings worth taking.



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