That Was A Spectacular Failure! | Beth's Blog

That Was A Spectacular Failure!


On Monday,  I attended Compasspoint’s Nonprofit Day 2011.  The theme was “Inspired Resilience:  How we sustain People, Organizations, and Causes.”    I attended a fantastic workshop facilitated by Michelle Gislason, Senior Project Director, CompassPoint, called “How to Fail Spectacularly (and What You Can Learn from It)”   Here’s a few key takeaways and resources.

  • There are two different views about failure that people in the room who work for nonprofits have – one positive and one negative.  The negatives include:   shame, embarrassment, and guilt.     The positives:  learning, opportunity, and improvement.       The big point is that failure is a not a bad thing if you can reap from insight and learning from it.
  • The process of learning begins with you can admit failure, avoid the stigma – either the voice inside your or if working with a team not to play the blame game – but to reflect on why it happened.   This leads to deeper insights and improvements of what you’re doing.  Michelle shared a story about project she was managing that failed and the insights that it generated.  It was a particularly powerful story because it involved being honest with a funder who had supported the failed project.
  • Failure happens for a lot of reasons – these can include unrealistic expectations, not having a strategy or plan, not doing due diligence or research, or mission creep driven by funding.    These can provide ripe learning experiences.     There is also “intentional failure” – that is a form of risk-taking that leads to innovation.  Often, these may lead to incremental success or dramatic success, but if you don’t take these risks you won’t ever see innovation.      She was not talking about careless failure – but trying something new – as a pilot – and learning from it.   This takes an agile, learning culture.
  • The topic is a hot right now with a couple of recent books and articles.   (I’ve been curating a list on failure and have them here)   Two really good resources:   A new book called “Why Success Always Begins With Failure” by Tim Hartford.    Here’s a post that gives you tip on how to fail in the right way and reap the benefits based on the book.   There is a nonprofit site called “Admitting Failure” that was created by the NGO Engineers Without Borders to avoid having mistakes replicated.
  • We did an exercise in small groups where we reflected on a failure and share it with others.   The exercise is based on failfare.   It was a simple set of questions that can be used to debrief any project and gain insights.    Some nonprofits have instituted their own internal fail fest – like DoSomething.Org

What was the project?
What were you trying to do?
What was the fail?  Where did it go wrong?
What would you do differently?
What would you never do again?
What lessons can be learned?




  • The workshop included some profound and inspirational quotes about failure as well as a humorous play list of songs on the theme of mistakes.


How does your organization deal with mistakes and failure?  Blame game or learning?



13 Responses

  1. Loving all this talk of failure, Beth! What this makes me think of is the Carol Dweck research on growth vs. fixed mindsets, where people with fixed mindsets see “failure” and people with growth mindsets see “learning.”

    Although I am a big believer in systems theory, I also know that individuals make up the system and that change often has to start with individual behavior. So I think that we as individuals may also need to look at how we do or don’t handle failure well. If we’re feeling shame or guilt, then we are probably in a fixed mindset. If we can see it as an opportunity, then we are in a growth mindset. The trick is to get ourselves feeling comfortable with “failure” as growth opportunities–not being so hard on ourselves or other people.

    Great stuff–thanks for sharing!

  2. Beth Kanter says:

    Thanks Michele. What is interesting to me how unpopular these posts and conversations are … to me it is soo important

  3. My husband attended a seminar on agile software development, and when something fails, the leader plays music, and I think they even dance. They also do this when they succeed!

  4. Beth Kanter says:

    Martha: Thanks for sharing – that’s a great story

  5. Beth–I think that the posts and conversations are unpopular because we learn from a very early age that failure is “bad.” There is a lot of shame and anxiety associated with failing and making mistakes and most human beings do not want to feel ashamed.

    The more I work with people, the more I see how basic psychology is at work in so much of what goes on. We avoid what feels bad and seek out what feels good. And most of the time we are pretty blind to the fact that we are doing this. Our brains are great “excuse machines,” so they help us cover it up. It takes a lot of psychological courage to wrestle with “failure” and see it as learning. I struggle with it all the time.

  6. Daron Butler says:

    Hi Beth. Two books re: failure
    I just re-read the book by John Maxwell, “Failing Forward” & I am reading Tavis Smiley’s new book, “Fail up.” Both good reads on leveraging failure to move things ahead. I tend to “beat myself up” for mistakes rather than stop and think what I could learn from them. Thanks for your posts and for the helpful tips.

  7. Beth says:

    Daron: Thanks so much for the book recommendations. Daron, I did the same thing for years, but I’ve learned to remove that sting from making mistakes or messing up – and embrace the good feelings that come from leveraging failure – learning and improvement

  8. […] That Was A Spectacular Failure! On Monday,  I attended Compasspoint’s Nonprofit Day 2011. Source: […]

  9. Richard Turner says:

    I heard the following phrase the other day which sums it up nicely “Fail, Learn, Leap”.

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