Embrace failure to succeed

11 May 2017

In everyday life, people fail constantly. We accept these failures without questions, we sympathise with their victims, and we give people space to accept them. So why is there still a fear of failure in the workplace and a resistance to accepting failure?

Bond’s recent Futures and Innovation working group met to discuss how failure, and the acceptance of failure, in the workplace and in international development generally is necessary for success and innovation. 

Innovation and risk come hand in hand, and getting things wrong is part of experimenting. But continuing to do more of the same out of a fear of failure is arguably the biggest barrier to success. The development sector needs to innovate if it wants to continue to achieve positive change for millions of people living in poverty. Below are three tips to address inevitable failures.

Change the rhetoric around “failure”

Failure has negative implications, but people and organisations don’t realise that learning comes out of failure. Post-it notes were initially seen as a huge failure - the brief was to create a super strong adhesive that could be used in the aerospace industry. Instead an incredibly weak, low-tack adhesive was created - a failure given the brief. Today Post-it notes are used all over the world and seen as a successful invention. 

Before scrapping an idea, ask yourself what it is that you’re trying to do, examine your results, and learn from them before labelling them as a “failure”. By broadening our perspectives of what success and failure are, we can see that there are no solid definitions of each, there is just potential.

Build a “failure” culture within your organisation

Engineers without Borders release a report every year that details their failures. This is brave considering INGOs are reliant on external funding which is often given based on successful results. It’s also an excellent way of creating a culture within the organisation where people are not afraid to admit to their mistakes and learn from the experiences of failing.

Organisations can facilitate this by offering a safe, open space where people feel comfortable regularly sharing their failures and discussing what they’ve learned. A fearless staff champion holding open the space for people to innovate and take risks can help to create this space, and shelter people from critics. Get buy-in from senior leadership and bring the Board along with you on the journey, invite external shareholders to explanations of what went wrong. 

Where possible, establish a relationship with donors where you can “fail together” – regularly checking on progress and agreeing the best way forward. Failure that is shared is less likely to be pushed underground and hidden, meaning that lessons are more likely to be learnt.

Fail fast, fail often, fail forward

Not admitting failure can be catastrophic. Continuing with a project that is not working wastes money, and negatively impacts beneficiaries and future projects. 

Using failure to frame your next steps often results in bigger and better success in the long term. Programmes should be seen as continuous cycles of reviewing and learning, questioning assumptions and reviewing the “why”. They are not linear processes with a defined start, middle and end. Your project is more likely to succeed if you design in flexibility from the start, maintain good relationships with donors, and be honest about failures.

For further inspiration, read John C. Maxwell’s book Failing Forward (summary) and join our next Futures and Innovation group event on Wednesday 5th July at 3-4.30pm, at Method Studios, 7th Floor, the Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6JJ. For more information and to register contact Liz Lowther, head of innovation and learning. 

About the author

Beatrice Waddingham

Beatrice Waddingham is the futures and effectiveness assistant.