A Learner’s Guide to Failure

Friday Learning Notes

You’ve likely come across articles with headlines like, “Failure is Good” or “Why Failure is Important.” The recent fascination with acknowledging our failures seems mature and refreshing when compared to the other extreme of ignoring or covering up our mistakes.

A prerequisite to growth is acknowledging what happened, and what we can learn from. And yet — too much emphasis on failure can also stifle our growth if we get bogged down in what went wrong.

As we endeavor to create change, we will likely have a fair mix of success and failure. As we reviewed in last week’s Friday Learning Note, good intentions aren’t enough to transform complex systems. In the world of philanthropy and impact investing, mistakes have been made and will continue to be made.

So how can we learn from our failures and stop making the same mistakes over and over again?

In Favor of Failure

New initiatives around failure, such as Fail Festivals, have emerged around the idea that we need to talk more about failure. Fail Festivals, was catalyzed by the idea that failure is the “f-word” in international development: unspoken in polite company, yet a reality we all must face.

These efforts, while light-hearted, have seriously started to open up the conversation around failure.

In the impact investing field, there have also been a growing number of conversations about the need to talk about failure.

As Sachin Rudra, the chief investment officer at Acumen, states in this blog:

“We should embrace failure….If an impact investor gets scared of failure, then they are really not taking enough risk and are not true to what they’re trying to do in the world.”

To meet the demands of a compelling social mission, it takes a willingness to experiment that opens up the door to great success and failure.

A Call for Balance

But at what point have we swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction? Have we gone from covering up our mistakes to focusing too much on mistakes or getting discouraged by ruminating on them?

Harvard Business Review

Not all failure is created equal. Amy C. Edmundson, a professor at Harvard Business School, acknowledges that there is a spectrum of reasons for failure that ranges from blameworthy (i.e. deviance or inattention) to praiseworthy (i.e. hypothesis or exploratory testing).

As we strive to create a culture of learning, we work to increase openness around the more praiseworthy forms of failure.

In the nonprofit space, the Hewlett Foundation has also been exploring failure for learning with some surprising lessons.

Last year in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, June Wang of the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group shared the story of their “Worst Grant Contest,” an effort to more openly acknowledge failure among staff. In reflecting on their worst grants of the year, program officers found that they tended to focus on what the grantees did wrong, rather than what they had learned as an organization and could do better in the future. To try to shift this thinking, they created a “Worst Strategy Contest” but found that even when they looked at their own mistakes, the exercise became hollow over time.

When the discourse around failure turns into an opportunity to blame others, or even into a comedic spectacle, the real value of failure is lost.

Wang also explains that it’s not challenging to talk about failure simply because it makes people uncomfortable, but rather because “Failure is too blunt of a word for the type of work we do.” The complexity of philanthropy and impact investing means that success and failure are fairly subjective, and there are rarely defined measures of success.

To quote the article’s final paragraph:

“I’m not opposed to calling something a failure if it is one. And I firmly support those who use the language of failure as a rallying cry to promote openness and learning. But in the end, failures are spectacles. Failure focuses too much on what happened, and not enough on what to do differently. Let’s not get tripped up by the word. Let’s stop debating whether or not something was a failure. Instead, let’s focus on learning and improving. Let’s be candid about what’s not going well, reflect on it, learn from it, and start doing things differently.

It’s not enough to just point out what went wrong, it’s about how we focus on growth and generate insights so that we can become better over time.

The Omidyar Group’s Rob Ricigliano shares why we should dump the terms “success” and “failure”

If you are interested in shifting your view on failure to enhance your learning, you may want to consider this question:

How can you embrace failure for its learning potential and not dwell on what went wrong?



Our Friday Learning Notes series is designed to share insights from Omidyar Network’s journey to become a best-in-class learning organization. Grab a cup of coffee and start your own Friday morning learning journey! *warning: side effects of regular reading may include improved mood, upswing in dinner party conversation, and/or increased desire to cultivate learning for social impact