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Celebrating Failure

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

We may not celebrate our successes particularly well in the voluntary and community sectors, but maybe that’s because we’ve stopped believing them? Perhaps if we spent more time actively admitting what’s gone wrong, as the ground-breaking new website, AdmittingFailure.com encourages, we would feel more inclined to celebrate when things really do go well?

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There have been many recurring themes in my time in the voluntary and community sectors. One of these has been the repeated mantra of ‘we are terrible as celebrating our successes!’

On some level, I’ve always agreed with this – for those of us slugging away in often thankless jobs ‘doing good’ in the world, a party, a pat on the back, or some other affirmation of our value is important and shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

However, I’d also like to unpick this one a bit; maybe we fail to celebrate our successes because we declare that everything we do in this sector is ‘successful’? And maybe, when we do so, we stop believing it? And when we stop believing it, maybe we don’t want to make a big deal of each and every supposed success, because doing so would highlight the reality that we’ve been distorting our own narrative, supposedly for funders and donors for so long?

‘Doomed to succeed’

My colleague Titus Alexander once described our sector as ‘doomed to succeed’ – that as soon as our organisations are given money to do something, we are expected to not only achieve, but pass with flying colours, one hundred percent of the time.

And as our income usually hinges on doing so, invariably, we find ways of showing that we do; sometimes this means ‘double-counting’, sometimes cherry-picking ‘easy-win’ beneficiaries, sometimes highlighting one or two of those we’ve supported as being more representative than they really are… whatever it is, we’ve got our ways of making sure whatever we do ‘succeeds’ – at least on paper.

The dangers here are ones I’ve discussed in several blogs before, but primary among them is the impact this has on our ability to learn from our mistakes – namely because we often pretend they aren’t there, or we gloss over them with a selectively told story of what we did working – and working entirely.

The problem is, if we were to read a random selection of most of our organisations’ annual reports, evaluations or publicity documents, we would get the impression that nothing we’ve ever done had not gone perfectly to plan.

Which is basically impossible. But some combination of real and perceived funder/donor pressure tends to keep us from acknowledging this impossibility, allowing us to continue living a whole series of stretched, distorted or otherwise manipulated truths in our working lives.

The research on the importance of mistakes, trial-and-error and learning from things that don’t work is extensive and the conclusions are fairly clear: if you’re afraid of either making or acknowledging your mistakes, you will never do anything new or groundbreaking.

Admitting Failure?

With all of this in mind, my jaw dropped when I read Monday’s Guardian story on Canadian NGO, Engineers Without Borders’ decision to publish a ‘Failure Report’, and launch a website for the international development/aid sector more broadly called, AdmittingFailure.com. It reads:

“By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.” – AdmittingFailure.com

The site also invites other development/aid orgs around the world to submit their own failures, the idea being that an easily searchable and sharable ‘failure bank’ will emerge, providing a user-generated resource for those looking to, say, implement a change management project in Burkina Faso.

Admitting failure everywhere else in life

At this point I add the critical disclaimer that I’m not just picking on non-profit organisations; the inclination to deny our mistakes and failures is much more widespread than that. We teach it to our kids in schools, our governments do it almost pathologically and the pressures in the private sector to push profit margins all create a similar distorting effect.

Some recent online conversations have got me involved in creating WeScrewedUp.com – a site based on the same principles as AdmittingFailure.com, but applying to our personal lives (work, relationships, families, etc).

We’re also thinking about a similar forum and blog for non-profit/voluntary causes more widely, allowing an honest discussion of things that haven’t worked, to help all of us get closer to those that might.

Do let us know if you’re interested in contributing, are doing something similar, or know of something along these lines that already exists…

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.