SXSW 2013 – Social by Global: Failure Is Not An F-Word! | Beth's Blog

SXSW 2013 – Social by Global: Failure Is Not An F-Word!


This week I was in Austin, TX for SXSW Interactive Festival where I presented or facilitated at several social good sessions or events.   I started presenting at SXSW in 2008 and have gone annually (except last year I took a year off).    I’ve watched over the years as the presence of social good and nonprofits folks has grown over the years, although this year it felt like contracted because there were not as many sessions this year.      I do, however, run into good friends who work in the technology and social media sector – such as Chris Prillo who was vlogging this year’s SXSW.

I was only there for 48 hours, but I did two workshops on two different topics (nonprofit social media managers workshop and measurement), a discussion on impact measurement in the Beacon Lounge, and lighting talk failure  Good By Global (the Social Good Summit at SXSW).

This post is to share my deck and comments from my lighting talk about failure at Good by Global at SXSW.

Last November, I had the honor of being one of three keynote speakers for the Social Good Brasil Conference, along with Peter Sims who is an amazing thinker, networker, and connector.  I don’t always get a chance to sit in the audience and simply listen at conferences where I am keynoting because I’m also preparing my talk, but Peter’s keynote was after mine on the following day so I have a rare opportunity to immerse without being distracted because I was going to be speaking soon.

The inspiration for my talk,  “Failure Is Not An F-Word: How One Little Word Means So Much and How To Change It,” comes directly from being inspired by Peter’s ideas and wanting to translate them for the nonprofit sector. During the Social Good Brasil Conference, I was present during a VIP discussion session with NGOs and Sponsors that Peter facilitated about the themes in his book, “Little Bets” where he asked a simple, but powerful question:  “What is failure?”

Peter described the findings from research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University, and is one of the leading experts on why some people are more willing and able to learn from setbacks and mistakes.   She discovered people hold two mental headsets around failure – “Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset.”   The latter feel their beliefs and intelligence is set in stone and that you have to always prove those abilities.   They feel that making a mistake threatens their worth.  Every situation is black or white: “Will I succeed or fail?”   They need constant outside validation.

On the other hand, the growth mindset is about learning how to improve from setbacks.    These people are willing to take more risks since challenging experiences are chance to grow and that their performance on every task is not a reflection on their intelligence.

This leads me to a question, “Why don’t more people who work for nonprofits embrace this “learning from failure” or growth mindset – especially when using technology?  How can we encourage this as both individually and organizationally?”

One method that some nonprofits engage in to improve an event or campaign is an “After Action Review.,”  An AAR is an assessment conducted after a project or activity that allows everyone the team to discover  and learn what happened and why.   The team looks at some questions:

  • What was the goal of our project?
  • What actually happened during implementation?
  • Was it anticipated?
  • What did we learn from the experience?
  • How can we improve the activity the next time we do it?

But what typically happens when a nonprofit (or business for that matter) uses this approach?    People get the finger, not The Finger, but the finger pointing of failure.     The leader might point their finger at a staff member and say, “It’s all your fault.”   The staff might turn around blame their PR agency.     Others will deny the failure by scratching their heads or saying tentatively, “I thought we did a great job.”   Meanwhile others go silent.  But guess what they are thinking?

These are the typical reactions to a failure: blame others, deny it, or blame yourself.      These three broad reactions to failure and more detailed 11 types were proposed by the psychologist Saul Rosenzweig in the 1930s and based on a test that he had developed to assess anger and frustration. Some people are extrapunitive—prone to unfairly blaming others. Some are impunitive:  They either deny that failure has occurred or deny their own role in it.  And some are intropunitive, often judging themselves too harshly and imagining failures where none exist.  The 11 types break it down further into the specific reaction and behavior.   One of the first steps in answering my question is to know yourself and your reactions.

Once you can understand your reaction – and if you are a person who tends to blame yourself, it is important to understand how making a mistake makes us feel bad and how to let that feeling of shame go.    I learned a technique for this from Seattle-based improvisation teacher, Matt Smith.  It is call the failure bow.    The failure bow can be transformative because it helps with altering our physiological response to failure that can lead to transparency, availability, flexibility and improved results and learning.

Next time you make a mistake or your team is doing an after action review, don’t cringe.   Do the failure bow.  1) raise your hands in the air 2) say I failed 3) grin like a submissive dog and 4) move on to learn and improve. The failure bow is what trapeze artists, acrobats, and other athletics do after a fall so they let got the fear of making a mistake.   Even Olympic snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler who took a nasty fall while competing, got up, raise her hands in the failure bow and smiled.

Once you understand your own behavior and a technique for letting go of failure, you need to understand other people in your organization and establish this as a way of working.  I’ve written about a number of techniques that nonprofits use on their teams to let go of failure here.

If we can reframe failure to another word like fabulous because it helps learn and improve our social change results, why wouldn’t want to do it?

I’m facilitating a plenary session on learning to fail for nonprofits at the Nonprofit Technology Conference next month to look at the value of failure in our sector.    The panelists will include:   Brian Reich, Disrupter; Erin Shy, Sage Nonprofit Solutions; Megan Kashner, CEO Benevolent and Allie Burns, SVP of Communications & Marketing, The Case Foundation.

You can expect to hear a lot more about failure and nonprofits in the coming year.   I’m working closely with Peter Sims who is also the founder of  The  BLK SHP Enterprises  (pronounced “black sheep”) which is a socially conscious BCorporation (benefit corporation).   BLK SHP’s mission is to build and nurture ecosystems that can help unlock the creativity and voices of socially conscious innovators.   In essence, the BLK SHP are a loose guild of America’s leading creative thinkers, writers, policy-makers, artists, entrepreneurs, investors, and social entrepreneurs.   And, I proud to be a BLK SHP member where I’ll be writing and speaking about how to adapt some of Peter’s ideas to the nonprofit sector.

How does you deal with a mistake or failure in your work? How does your organization learn from failure?

9 Responses

  1. Brian Reich says:

    Super important post, Beth – and very much looking forward to continuing the discussion you started at SXSW when we get to NTEN.

    Interestingly, I think you were the only person really talking about failure at SXSW this year – which was surprising, and disappointing.

    I wrote a post about this:

  2. Mandy Shold says:

    As someone who has trouble “taking the failure bow,” I really appreciated how this post not only focused on what to do after a failure but also how to learn from it. A failure can actually be one of the best things that can happen to your company because it forces you to rethink your strategy as opposed to continuing to make the same mistakes with mediocre results. Rather than thinking of failure as an example of something you didn’t know, think of it as something you now know that leaves you better off than before.

  3. Sherman says:

    Another excellent article by one of the best. Once I let go of the thought “I failed” doesn’t matter what it was, I moved on to better things and life. Thank you Beth, I have been reading your work since the days at the library. The past is a step to our future.

  4. […] to SXSW this year, Beth Kanter blogged about some of the sessions she attended or facilitated like Social by Global: Failure Is Not An F-Word! I didn’t make it to SXSW this year either, but Kristina and I will be at NTEN’s […]

  5. Mary Alice says:

    So much food for thought. I loved “the finger.” Never know where I’m going to point it when failure happens (internally or externally), but usually at myself. It’s always good to learn from failure. My orgs did post-mortems on projects to document what we thought worked well and what we would could improve on next time.

  6. Beth – Thank you SO much for helping make the #13NTC so awesome. You and the panel started an important conversation and I know the community is going to answer your call to action!

  7. […] for those of you who might wish to make a culture change in your organization.  Consider this variation from Patricia Ryan Madson: I invite my students to […]

  8. […] recommends an After Action Review: “an assessment conducted after a project or activity that allows everyone on the team to […]