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How do you create an organizational culture that encourages the risk-taking, creativity and continuous adaptation required for innovation? Engineers Without Borders Canada has been publishing an annual Failure Report for five years, and recently spun-off a social enterprise, Fail Forward, to support others to do just that. The New York Times says it is helping "the social change world reach its true potential."
It creates both open dialogue about failures and organizational acceptance of them, giving employees and volunteers incentives to innovate as well as tools and collaborative space to fail fast and fail forward, a "brave" and "welcomed exception" according to The Guardian.
In international development no one talks about failure, and there is no market to punish failure. Without the latter, Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) decided to try to role model the former, painful as it is, to improve our and other organizations’ performance.
EWB was started in Toronto, Canada in 2000 and has grown to 25 full-time Canadian Programs Staff, 40 African Programs Staff, 45,000 members and over 3,000 active volunteers.
No one sets out to create an organization like Engineers Without Borders Canada. Much like our approach to international development, EWB evolved over the years as we’ve failed, learned, analyzed and identified necessary innovations.
EWB exists because despite decades of international development efforts, there are millions of Africans living in extreme poverty. They are highly vulnerable and have dramatically diminished choices. Yet these same people have incredible potential, which we hope to unlock through systemic innovations that impact the masses. We don’t drill wells—we help to ensure that tens of thousands of wells are monitored and repaired.
Two of EWB's most pressing constraints are common to many non-profits. First, our funding model is predominantly donation-driven, resulting in limited sustained revenue. Second, EWB has no formal power over any of the systems we are trying to change.
A less common challenge comes from the very specialized talent requirements of the roles at EWB. Because the work we do requires unique and specialized knowledge, skills and attitudes, our talent pipeline, and any growth, has to come largely from within EWB's membership. Out of this challenge arises the need to adequately prepare members to take on formal roles. The Failure Report serves this need by driving a culture of innovation and learning across the 45,000 membership base.
EWB’s values, first documented as above in 2009, serve as a foundation for this organizational culture. Perhaps it's not surprising then that EWB became the first to publish a Failure Report given its organizational values such as “dream big and work hard”, which speaks to imagination and a willingness to take risks, and “strive for humility”, which asks EWBers to be open to new ideas and open about their mistakes.
In January 2008, Nick Jimenez was in Toronto, preparing to join EWB's Governance and Rural Infrastructure venture in Ghana. Ever-willing to ask the tough questions, during a pre-departure training session Nick asked EWB Co-Founder Parker Mitchell how EWB could claim humility while often bragging about greatness and virtually never talking about mistakes or failures.
After a year of work overseas, Nick rallied a handful of others who had trained with him to address this organizational tension between humility and pride—by publicly documenting aspects of their work that failed.
There was a reason no one in the sector was talking about their failures already: development work is largely donor-driven and donors tend to stop funding people and projects that fail. This is not Silicon Valley—the risk aversion in the sector is palpable, stifling innovation and driving learning underground. Despite the best intentions of nearly 70 years of modern international development efforts, extreme poverty still persists. Clearly, poverty is a wicked problem driven by a dynamic and complex system that includes and affects everyone on earth.
No one reasonably believes they have the right answer and knows how to solve this problem. Yet the majority of development projects are designed and implemented linearly, as though we know exactly how the interdependent systems of governments, markets, communities and households will respond to our development efforts.
It is evident the linear thinking that characterizes traditional international development efforts is insufficient to address the root cause of the problem it seeks to address. Eric Beinhocker referred to the global economy as a complex adaptive system in his keynote address at the 2011 EWB Conference, and went on to express the need for evolutionary-like selection of initiatives from the ground up to address global poverty.
One cannot possibly predict how the aforementioned interdependent systems of politics, markets, and people will respond to various efforts. What is needed is an approach that recognizes the validity of learning by doing, and one that evolves according to this learning—try things, multiply what gets you closer to your goal, eliminate what fails, and repeat—or simply “deductive tinkering” according to Beinhocker.
Phase 1: Acceptance
Fortunately, EWB had, and still has, a culture that encourages staff to act on their ideas and creativity. Nick’s suggestion to his fellow African Programs Staff to document their stories of failures was met with enthusiasm. His peers, Louis, Sarah, Graham and Jean-François, all had stories to contribute and Jean-François stepped up to do the required editing and layout. This group of mavericks managed to have the very first Failure Report printed and distributed at EWB’s Annual General Meeting in January 2009. It was so grassroots-driven that EWB CEO, George Roter only learned of the initiative when the report was being handed out during that meeting!
The beginnings were undoubtedly modest but the failure report was influential because it didn't intend to be! It was real—a genuine role model for humility in a sector that only ever spoke of success after success. The motivation behind the Report—to drive an organizational culture of learning, humility and transparency—was materializing, and inspired EWB to expand the initiative.
Phase 2: Expansion
In 2010, William H. Gates Senior, Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, contributed the foreword to the Failure Report, highlighting the importance of learning from failure for effective development work and specifically saying "Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada continues its bold leadership on this practice, by highlighting several mistakes and failures made throughout the year and analyzing how they have learned and improved."
For three years, the Failure Report was used and adapted to build and reinforce this learning culture and made EWB a leader in operationalizing organizational learning. At the time, no other international development organization was willing to share failures, but EWB sought out similar-minded organizations and invited them to take up this challenge - and some exceptional groups (e.g. Building Markets) did!
The other expansion in 2010 was to include failure stories, not just from EWB's African Programs as was the case in the first two reports, but from every level of the organization—in Africa and Canada. For the first time, the call for stories came from National Office and was open to all EWBers. This 2010 Failure Report, with the stories from exceptional leaders within it, demonstrated to everyone, from donors to new hires, that EWB was a place where you could test new ideas, try innovative approaches, fail, and be rewarded for the learning that allows everyone to improve going forward.
Eli Angen submitted a story to the 2010 Report about a failed attempt at mobilizing volunteers across Canada to make presentations in their workplaces. He called it Bring EWB To Work (BETW).
"I knew BETW was an ambitious initiative when I came up with the idea. That was the point. I wanted to push EWB to dream big and really shift how we engaged with corporations across Canada. It was way beyond anything I'd tried before but I also knew if I failed to achieve my goals I would still be recognized for the learning I would do along the way."
True to form, when the results were "dismal" Eli got to work making a lunch and learn presentation about his failed efforts. When asked what made him speak openly about the failure rather than hide or sugar coat it he said "The failure report. I'd seen authors of past stories get recognized and appreciated so I knew the painful act of sharing my failure openly would be respected and the learning would be used."
By the time Eli’s story went to print, his boss, Jon, had already incorporated what Eli learned into the next national-level campaign, Solving Problems that Matter, which was wildly successful and reached 85% of all first year engineering students that year.
The Failure Report celebrates a willingness to be bold and take calculated risks. Eli sums up his experience by saying "This Report reinforces the culture of risk taking and ambition that gave me the space to come up with BETW in the first place. There are so many stories of smart people daring greatly, how can you not be inspired to do the same?"
Expansion also meant that 2010 was the first year George and Parker, EWB’s co-CEOs, contributed a story of failure and in doing so became role models of humility and learning for the entire organization. They, and other members of the executive, now contribute stories each year.
Phase 3: Maximizing Usefulness
Post-expansion, the usefulness of the Failure Report grew thanks to its contribution to the organizational visioning process, its power to attract great people, and its inherent ability to gain the respect of partners and donors.
In 2011, the Failure Report was a big part of changes made to EWB's vision. The new vision articulated for all EWBers that openness about failures is not only accepted, but encouraged as an indicator of innovation, courage and learning. Just as investors tolerate a certain level of risk in order to generate the high financial returns they seek, the Failure Report demonstrates EWB's tolerance for failure in the name of generating the high innovation returns needed to address the complex and dynamic issues that contribute to poverty.
The very existence and celebration of the report attracts the kind of people to the organization who want to challenge the status quo, get creative, and take risks in the interest of testing new ideas and approaches to solve old problems. It attracts innovators and entrepreneurs and provides an incubation space for their early stage ideas to thrive. At least 90% of our volunteers and staff cite the Failure Report as an important part of their decision to get involved with EWB.
Michael Kennedy, who was hired last year to join EWB's Water and Sanitation team in Malawi, told me "The failure report is the reason I am in Malawi right now. Having had no previous experience with EWB, the report's existence indicated to me that the organization was reflective and dynamic. It gave me the impression that if I had issue with an approach we were taking I would have opportunity to voice my concern and be heard - which has been the case."
EWB's Failure Report convinced Michael of the benefit of speaking openly about his failures which has had a huge impact on his work in Malawi. "I attended a conference recently. After sitting through two days of country representatives championing their programs I gave a three minute presentation on how horribly I bombed a database transition project. The project failed on several fronts and I managed to get the room laughing at my expense. The next day the facilitator approached me and thanked me for what I said - suggesting it had put people at ease and spawned more fruitful discussion and learning - people were admitting failure."
Michael believes the inherent value of the Failure Report is the message is sends: "Enabling safe failure dialogue is fundamental to ensuring adjustments made when needed. It's a simple message but it’s incredibly rare to find an organization that embodies it." As the Report has grown and evolved it has helped EWB embody this adaptive approach.
Michael's story is not unique. When EWBers present their work the topic that generates the most dialogue and interest is always the Failure Report. Our African partners can hardly believe it exists when they are so keenly aware of donor expectations for success. These partners see failure all the time but no one, except EWB, is holding themselves accountable for it. The humility and honestly inspires strong relationships, both with our African partners and our donors. It helps build trust but also sets the expectation that we will try things that work and we will try things that don't. Regardless we will always continue to innovate, learn and adapt.
The influence this report has had on the international development sector is hard to quantify in anything but anecdotes. And while not directly applicable to driving innovation within EWB, the wide-spread uptake of the idea is an indicator of how powerfully resonant the Report has been.
An EWB Team Leader recently told me “the Failure Report is clearly recognized by the top consulting organizations in our sector" and I've heard from multiple sources that the Report is now incorporated into U.K. universities' development studies curriculums.
Ryan Bourque, an African Programs Staff member, told me about sitting in a coffee shop in Kampala talking with a nutritionist from the UN's World Food Programme about the need for projects to learn better and faster when she excitedly blurted out "There's this great TED Talk on failure, I don't agree with everything the guy said but just admitting when we mess up sounds like a pretty good start." The TED talk was David Damberger’s, a long-time EWBer who spoke passionately about EWB's Failure Report to a TED audience in 2011 – a video that now has over 350 000 views.
In the last two years a few of EWB's donors recognized the power of the Failure Report to drive innovation and asked me to give presentations, workshops and otherwise support their organizations to do the same. I bring this up to demonstrate the idea is spreading. It is not constrained to the not-for-profit sector. These donors are successful, profit-driven businesses that simply recognized the importance of creating a safe space to fail in order to encourage innovation. What I have seen is that openness to failures, and using those failures to collaboratively learn and adapt, can revolutionize our potential to innovate and solve our most challenging problems.
Phase 4: Adaptations, Spin-Offs and Future Directions
In 2011, inspired by the potential to reframe how the social sector reacts to failures, I created and launched a Failure Report spin-off called Admitting Failure. It is a website which invites people to share their failures in an effort to build an inter-organizational community of practice. Ironically, it failed to become the crowd-sourced database for learning from failure I had hoped it would be. In two years, despite substantial media attention, less than 30 stories have been submitted. But in the spirit of innovations arising from failures, the concept has evolved to become Fail Forward, a social enterprise and consulting business which supports businesses, not-for-profits and funders to create safe spaces to talk about and learn from failure.
The EWB member and University of Manitoba student, Richard Farthing-Nichol, is planning to create a failure conference for on-campus social advocacy groups, providing yet another example of a Failure Report spin-off initiative.
The Failure Report itself continues to evolve as well. While exceptional at driving organizational culture, the Report has been duly criticized for being a poor learning tool. Currently, there are no less than six ideas under consideration by EWBers for how to improve the report in this regard. These ideas (e.g. improved stakeholder engagement with partners implicated in the failure stories, cross-organizational dialogues following Report publication, workshops to accompany each story to encourage deeper understanding, etc.) will be tested for their effectiveness this year and inform future adaptations to the Failure Report process and product.
If I'm honest, the same conceptual challenges around purpose, direction and focus that existed in the early days of the Report persist today. For example, in order to maximize innovation and learning in every corner of EWB, I am currently asking if the report should focus on the personal or psychological barriers to accepting failure, and so am driven to investigate what aspects of our nature make it so hard to talk about failures and what can be done about them? Or should the Report take a more systems, process-focused approach that experiments with and builds the structures around the report that encourage us to discuss and learn from failure and work to maximize these?
To address these tensions (Personal- versus process- focused, how to balance the humility required to serve the core purpose while leveraging it for broader influence, why use the word "failure" when talking about "lessons learned" is easier on those involved) it is vital to be as open as possible and encourage dialogue to understand the issue, then adapt accordingly. In this way, the continual evolution of the Failure Report role models the mindset and approach it espouses.
The media has recognized how courageous the initiative is. The New York Times said it was part of a movement to “Emulate Silicon Valley’s culture of calculated risk-taking, and...actively work to de-stigmatize failure” while a journalist for The Guardian wrote “I'm full of admiration for a Canadian NGO that is breaking all the rules by publishing a failure report”. The attention has been vital in building a community of people who believe this is a great approach to spark innovation. That said, talking openly about failure is not easy—for anyone. And to be most effective for learning, stories of failures should be blameless and considered as the result of multiple factors (including decisions, situations, assumptions and momentum). This makes it easier to discuss and truly understand why the failure occurred and maximize learning from the experience.
Innovation science tells us failure is one of the biggest parts of innovation. Organizational leaders can be sold on the theory fairly easily. However, in practice, everyone hates failure. Acceptable and praiseworthy failures, such as those that occur in the pursuit of innovation, have not traditionally been distinguished from those caused by low skills and performance of employees. Leaders can support the theory but often struggle in practice. The Failure Report breaks that norm by forcing all levels to discuss failure once a year, a practice which implicitly says, "If you have no failure to discuss you are not being honest or you are not being innovative."
It's a paradigm shift. The Failure Report genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you aren't underperforming if you fail; you're underperforming if you don't admit failure.
What remains a challenge is the codification of processes to implement these changes in various types of organizations. Three common structural issues I anticipate for organizations are:
- The centralization of management and power adds to the risk to front line employees admitting failure.
- Organizational orientations towards outputs, results, and numbers tend to be poor incentives for maximizing learning outcomes.
- Decentralized organizations with vastly diverse contexts of implementation often create structures that are better suited to absorbing and learning from failure but decentralized management means that fewer of the lessons learned are applicable across contexts.
Effective strategies for overcoming these potential challenges include incentives for the brave first few front line employees who step forward to speak openly about their learning, a reframing of evaluation criteria for both projects and individuals to include learning outcomes, and separate failure reports for decentralized divisions.
In addition to the obvious improvement in transparency, EWB is a more creative and agile organization because of the Failure Report.
There is space to dream big and try new ideas without the fear of consequence if failure is the outcome. This environment is celebrated and reinforced through the Report in a way that has made it a cornerstone of the very identity of EWB.
Amir Allana, an African Programs Staff member once told me "A large part of EWB’s learning and knowledge-management is about defining organizational norms, rather than managing the process for learning explicitly. The fact that EWB has a failure report makes me excited to acknowledge and publicize my failures, and learn from them. I would hazard a guess that is true for many. I regularly start conversations with [my manager] Mike saying "I messed up." If there is a lot of this happening - which I think there is - then the organization is naturally learning from failure all over."
The tendency for the Failure Report to catalyze truly innovative ideas is exemplified in a story told to me by Mike Klassen, Team Leader of EWB's Agriculture team in Uganda. His tale starts out when he contributed a story to the 2011 Failure Report and within six months his admission of failure had transformed into innovations that are now changing how market facilitation is undertaken.
Mike's 2011 failure was about how he prioritized high-level influence before making sure he truly understood the realities on the ground. "Publishing my failure led to major learning and restructuring for the team and changed how we do on-boarding. New hires now spend time immersed in field work that wouldn't otherwise have happened. This field work has led to really interesting inter-organizational sharing. Leanne [a new hire] did her immersion with the Mercy Corps RAIN project in Northern Uganda. She has been part of an experiment for promoting exchanges between two (arguably competing) organizations."
The inter-organizational exchanges also led to a case study on market development in post conflict areas that sets the standard for case studies used to train managers in international settings. This is a needed innovation because, as Mike puts it, "what currently exists is sterile and lacking detail". The Failure Report gave Mike a place to highlight the importance of field work to understand the interconnectedness of the actors in the agriculture systems which catalyzed an innovative redesign of his team's on-boarding process.
And even beyond that, his team’s new on-boarding process is starting to open doors to international conversations on how you build and train systems thinking skills in people doing market facilitation. "We anticipate it being the core topic of an inter-organizational collaboration later this year."
Mike also credits the Failure Report, and the reduced fear of failure and culture of calculated risk taking it encourages, for enabling him to take a big risk in expanding his team from Ghana to Uganda last year. It gave him the personal courage to make a big management decision and let EWB dare to grow. "A move that in retrospect has sparked orders of magnitude more learning, better partnerships, more influence and a foundation for really aiming for systemic change in East Africa - something that wouldn't have been predictable and definitely wouldn't have taken root so quickly had we stayed in Ghana."
A further benefit of the Failure Report is that it inspires resiliency in those who engage with it. This is exemplified in the case of Tamala Zembeni, a District Water Development Officer in Malawi. Tamala spends her time coordinating all water, sanitation and hygiene activities in her District. Recognizing her immense talent and contribution to providing Malawian communities with water and sanitation services, she was invited to attend the EWB National Conference this past January. She was inspired by EWB's failure report and in her closing presentation spoke of a newly-discovered mindset for resiliency when faced with complex challenges. This is what she said in her presentation:
"Failure is part of the game – do your best and when you fail, get up, re-strategise and move forward. Most of the times we fail to achieve what we want because we have a clear cut way of how to achieve things and when that order doesn’t follow we get discouraged and frustrated and finally we give up. I have realised that there are many ways to achieve one goal so if what I planned fails, I just need to come up with what I can do differently to achieve and not give up."
And as a final point, I'll speak to the benefits of including Failure Report concepts in the organizational vision. To quote Marty Neumeier from The Designful Company, EWB has an organization-wide "appetite for radical ideas". The EWB vision—our road map for what success looks like—was built upon this identity and includes phrases like "the courage to fail" and "learning means admitting failure".
In articulating this vision, EWB concluded that incubating systemic innovations was how we would most effectively contribute to accelerating Africa's development. There were more than 20 people who "pitched" their ideas for systemic innovation at EWB's National Conference last month, hoping EWB would invest in them. That is 20 people with untested ideas for unlocking Africa's prosperity who stood up on stage as if they were a start-up pitching to secure venture capital. That's more than double the number that pitched last year. Just three or four years ago, only a handful of ideas emerged from the network every year.
The courage of the individuals who risked rejection and failure when they pitched their ideas, as well as the quality of innovative insights they presented, represent the future of EWB and are supported and celebrated by the existence of the Failure Report.
The Failure Report is a dynamic tool for learning but the real power is its ability to shift organizational cultures.
While producing the report is an accomplishment, measuring cultural indicators, such as a hypothesis-driven approach to problem solving or a prevalence of celebrating risk, is vital for building innovation into the DNA of the organization.
It is absolutely critical to have buy-in and support from the highest levels of management.
Organizational norms tend to form top-down. If a CEO is willing to be a role model and admit his or her own failures, or at least publicly reward those who are sharing their failures and learning, the adoption of the practice will be accelerated. Failure is an equalizer. We all fail. Talking about it as peers, regardless of one's position, builds the empathy, trust and safe space to continue doing so.
Understand your organization's unique failure foundations.
Paradoxically, the most effective and innovative people and organizations are those that are willing and able to speak openly about their failures. Regardless, it is a challenging thing to do for just about everyone. To overcome this, I designed a workshop called "failure foundations" which asks employees to think about a professional failure then brainstorm what they would need to feel comfortable speaking openly about it. Not surprisingly, every organization has very different foundational elements that they need to get right before employees feel safe taking risks and discussing failure in practice. To provide some examples, at the individual level these foundational elements might include building confidence and credibility. At the interpersonal level elements such as dialogue and trust amongst the team have come up in the workshop. And at the institutional level the consequences or implications of the failure and expectations for success were seen as foundational elements which affect one’s ability to speak openly about their failures. Investing the time to understand what your organization’s existing, context-specific bottlenecks are is a vital early step.
Decouple ego from activity.
It is important to recognize that just because we may try something that fails; it does not mean we are a failure. Instead, we find a new kind of return on investment: the learning return. In times of failure, the ROI is less than hoped for or lost entirely and the goal becomes to maximize the learning return. In many cases that learning can be just as or even more valuable in the long-term if it is optimized and used to its full potential. This recognition allows egos to remain intact even in times of failure.
The tendency is to want to extract the lesson for people, parse them down and take the context out to make the lessons widely applicable. But keeping the story intact allows readers to draw out the learning that is most relevant for their situation. What's more, the personality in stories makes the lessons more memorable and gives a platform upon which group discussion and interpretation can form.
Go big or go home. No sugar-coating allowed.
Maintaining a dedication to honesty and humility is at the heart of making this work. Trying to euphemize failures as "lessons learned" or never tackling the tough failures and sticking to the no-risk variety undermines the cultural transformation needed for employees to dream big, take risks and maximize the organizational potential for innovation.
Jean-François Soublière, Parker Mitchell, Nick Jimenez, Ka-Hay Law, Eli Angen, Mike Klassen, Amir Allana, Tamala Zembeni, Michael Kennedy, Ryan Bourque and all the people who have shared their stories of failure over the past five years
- Fail Forward Failure happens - Learn, innovate and build resilience
- Admitting Failure A paradigm shift in how civil society perceives and talks about failure
- The Guardian: NGO hopes to benefit from failure
- The Guardian: Honest about failure is key to improving impact measurement
- Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University: Embracing the “F” Word in Development
- The Toronto Star: Admit you were wrong and good things will follow, group says
- This Magazine: How Engineers Without Borders learned to embrace failure (and learn from it, too)
- Les Affaires: L’éloge de l’échec, ou apprendre en se trompant
- Monthly Developments Magazine: The Real “F” Word
- Stanford Social Innovation Review: Thriving on Failure
- TED.com: What happens when an NGO admits failure
- The New York Times: The Power of Failure