Friday, February 12, 2010

Failure Talk

"But when was the last time you saw failure worked into any assessment rubric or logic model? Maybe, just maybe, we should be holding ourselves accountable for failing as much as for succeeding! Now that would signal intrepid philanthropy..."

Sally Osberg, "Failure Anyone?" Intrepid Philanthropist, December 9, 2009

What would "holding ourselves accountable for failure" look like? Transparency is certainly a first step. But think of when we begin to share our successes, usually at the stage of looking good, showing promise, or pointing in the right direction. The big evaluation is icing on the cake. That approach wouldn't work for many failures in philanthropy, although efforts with a double bottom line are likely to show problems earlier and in more forceful terms. If we are lucky, mid-course corrections are a time, at least for ourselves and partners, to acknowledge what hasn't been working and to make adjustments. For many failures, however, we sometimes need for the dust to clear before we can talk failure. Unfortunately, by that time many of us are on to new things.

Two other problems are becoming clear to me after collecting a number of failure stories. First, the dividing line of success and failure is not always so clear: many initiatives contain both and success and failure evolve over time. Second, the distinction between constructive and non-constructive failure is useful but harder to pin down than you might think. Most cases are hybrids. And non-constructive failure raises basic questions about good design, implementation, management, and investment. Our standards for feasibility, risk-taking, design and management are not as high as they should be.

No comments: