Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Foundations Learn to Admit Failures

"Clemens apologizes for 'mistakes," still denies drug use."
Houston Chronicle, May 5, 2008

I sensed a great moral lesson in the making when this statement poppped up on my screen, especially after attending a terrific workshop at the Council on Foundations Meeting on May 5 -- "The Advantage of Sharing Failure."

The obvious lesson is that sometimes its easier to share small, collateral, relatively insignificant mistakes in order to avoid the big one. In Clemens' case, these were'nt exactly small potatoes, but you get the point. On the other hand, starting small and incrementally letting the truth out is good advice for truthtelling and sharing failures. You learn to do it and you learn that, in most cases, you survive.

Foundations are in the knowledge generation and social impact business so that sharing lessons about what doesn't work and what failed is good for the field and thus good for them. Maybe others can avoid your mistakes, or build a a better solution. But to do this requires foundations to do at least three things: 1) set clear goals for investments so that a framework is established to gauge failure or success; 2) invest in gathering the kind of information that allows an assessment of progress or lack of progress; and 3) promote transparency about what has been learned -- not necessarily a global broadcast but at minimum a button on the home page for lessons learned. Not surprisinngly, all of this takes leadership.

There are certainly risks to sharing failure. One of the most common risks -- an example of how sharing little mistakes can cause harm -- is when foundations admit the failures of their nonprofit grantees -- showing their clay feet while remaining aloof. That doesn't help.

And there are lots of dilemmas in sharing failures, like success or failure in whose eyes, or distinguishing non constructive and constructive failures.

In the end, we need to change organizational and field cultures to tolerate and promote the sharing and learning from failures. The point is admitting failure, learning, and adapting. The best stories are when a foundation or nonprofit makes midcourse corrections and learns while doing. That's the big payoff of sharing failures.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Alexander Graham Bell got this exactly right: "When one door closes, another opens, but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."

Learning from our mistakes, whether they are strategic, tactical or historical, is the best way to gain perspective on how we can move forward more productively in the future. This is something that successful business and politicians have been trying to do for a long time, and I'm sure there are examples of foundations doing so as well.

While it isn't the most exciting project to undertake, a critical and comprehensive examination of why past efforts failed will often provide the best insights for future success.