What makes nonprofit failures useful or useless? FailBetter authors answer.
Authors Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn have recently published a new book to help you make the most of mistakes. They claim that, “Failure is not necessarily bad. Accepting that it’s inevitable, and maybe even desirable, sets the stage for a more nuanced discussion of learning, failure, and success.”
Today we’re building on our recent introductory post and featuring an excerpt of our interview with the coauthors to give you a better sense of how mistakes can be a path to great efficiencies rather than a source of regret or frustration.
More about the book’s premise
But first, let’s review a little bit more about the book’s premise. Sastry and Penn explain that “smart leaders, entrepreneurs and change agents design their innovation projects with a key idea in mind: ensure that every failure is maximally useful.” In Fail Better, the authors show you how to create the conditions, culture and habits to determine what the most effective solutions are by:
1) launching every project with the necessary groundwork,
2) building and refining ideas, products and services through iterative action, and
3) identifying the learning moments and embedding the knowledge.
Launch, iterate, embed
In other words, the book discusses how to address failures and make them beneficial before (launch), during (iteration) and after (embedding) the project’s work. You will learn an invaluable skill you may never have developed before: how to distinguish “preventable, wasteful and uninstructive failures” from helpful ones you can incorporate into your process.
Interview with the authors
Penn and Sastry: There are so many areas to choose from! Fail Better addresses common failure modes at each step—whether at the outset of a project when the seeds of a failure may be sown in failing to identify faulty assumptions that underpin the rest of the project’s actions or a needed skill set or resource is never secured (the Launch Phase of Fail Better aims at addressing this), or at the end of a project when many a manager and team member rushes into the next project without extracting, sharing and translating into changed behavior the lessons learned (the Embed Phase tackles how to do this).
People often “get it wrong” when they miss opportunities to prevent more costly failures in exchange for smaller, more informative, more affordable mistakes. And they get it wrong when they march to the end of a project on the back of a single monolithic approach, without testing and experimenting along the way. Not much can be done to improve an outcome at the end of a project, so if a faulty path is pursued with determination, larger, more public and more costly failures are bound to be the result. Fail Better’s Iterate Phase intervenes here.
On a more individual level, once failure has occurred, two critical pitfalls often await:
First, failure makes each one of us feel so uncomfortable, that often examining the causes of that failure are avoided and written off to circumstantial issues. This is a coping mechanism, but it’s the exact sort of thing that contributes to repeating similar mistakes. Fail Better works hard to help implementers avoid this outcome by creating the space and structure for reflection and behavior change in a safe way.
Second, there is a temptation as a manager to hide failure stories instead of owning them and crafting a narrative that shows why a course of action was selected, what was learned and what will be done differently going forward. A smart failure that drives learning and positive change and a response that demonstrates resilience and action is highly valued. And it is much better to craft our own failure stories than to have others, who may not know the nuances or intentions, do it for us by default.
Penn and Sastry: Our starting point is the idea that the right kind of failure—small-scale, reversible, informative, linked to broader goals, and designed to illuminate key issues—paves the way to success. Such failures are in service of a larger vision or goal, are stepping stones to refined and improved ideas, and create a platform of understanding and learning. In short, a better failure moves you forward. The wrong kind of failure entails waste, leads to discouragement, reflects rigid thinking, “bets the farm,” and contributes to reputational damage.
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