This is Part II of my earlier post, Nonprofit Failure: Why Can’t We Embrace it? where I discussed the missed opportunities failures present us. As promised, I’m sharing how to make failure work for you.
First let’s start with a few truths.
Failure is Inevitable
When you innovate, you will fail. At least to some extent, at some point along the way. As we chart new waters there’s simply no way around it. We’ll forget an important cog in the process or neglect to get buy-in from an important stakeholder. Failure is painful, but you can turn that pain into gain if you are willing to face it head on.
Failure Isn’t Permanent
Or at least the horrible feelings associated with it aren't. It appears one of our greatest fears -- to fail at what we really care about -- is unfounded. The pain we imagine we’ll feel if we fail simply won’t last. Even in the most traumatic times of our lives, research shows that we almost always have the ability to rebound. As noted in a recent article Scientific American , covering the work of researcher George A. Bonanno at Columbia University, “[I]n every instance, he has found, most people adapt surprisingly well to whatever the world presents; life returns to a measure of normalcy in a matter of months.” So, we'll get over it, no matter how big the failure.
We are actually hard-wired to do so. Our bodies create all kinds of brain chemistry that helps us overcome, even when we cope badly. Bonanno coined the term “coping ugly” to describe the wide variety of coping mechanisms that humans use to deal with trauma, like denial or narcissism, that may not be healthy otherwise. Hey, they may not always look pretty, but they work.
Failure Can Be Helpful
Failure has another upside, too. At the very least, it gives you a bottom baseline to work from. If you know what failure looks like, you’ll have a better understanding of what success might entail. If you’re unsure what direction to take to fix a problem, start by analyzing all of the actions that are the polar opposite of what you did when you failed. A new route may appear.
So now that you know failure is a reality and it can’t really hurt you, let’s talk about how to harness that energy and covert it into gold.
How to Make Failure Work for You
So, if you agree with me that sh**! happens, it's effects aren't permanent, and it can actually help you, here's what you need to do:
- Admit it!!!! -- It’s amazing how many people live in denial. Although denial is a “coping ugly” strategy that will help you get over trauma, it won’t help you learn what you need to do differently. So, let go, and fess up.
- Fail Early -- Make formative evaluation part of every new initiative. When starting new projects, make sure you stop to evaluate early and often. That way you can catch your mistakes up front, learn from them, and incorporate that wisdom into the project plan.
- Start Small -- Pilot something on a smaller scale, tweak it, and then scale it to your larger operation.
- Collaborate -- There’s strength and safety in numbers. Find like-minded partners who can help you experiment and own any success or failure together.
- Show Your Bumps -- If you are a leader, show the way by openly sharing your failures. To dip your toe in, you may want to start with something way back in the history books and then work from there. Your team will breathe a sigh of relief and you’ll set the tone for everyone else.
- Create a Sandbox -- Create a safe area where people can play without consequences. Designate certain projects as “official experiments.” Institutionalize your mistakes by starting up Failure Fridays where your team gets together to talk about their recent mishaps. Make it clear that these times are safe havens from criticism and judgement.
- Always Celebrate Both Wins and Losses -- Accept that you will make mistakes and celebrate your greatest moments of “Oooops!” as part of the positive strides your organization is making to improve.
- Educate Your Funders and Executive Management -- Make sure the people who make decisions about your program understand how failure is actually helping you move forward. Give specific examples and point them to well-respected sources that agree (as I mentioned in my first post, the Harvard Business Review frequently covers the concept of failure and has plenty of info to share online.)
So, there you have it. Sally forth without fear, make your mistakes, and grow exponentially.
Have any failures you’d like to share? Post them in our comments.