Those Canadians. So admirable. So multi-cultural. So modest. So polite. So non-controversial.*
OK. Maybe I should say they’re successful at failing . . . and by “successful,” I mean they’re leading the way in admitting their failures.
Realizing that you’ve failed and knowing what you learned from it is considered a necessary trait by business recruiters. In fact, some say that the most important interview question is “When have you failed?”
But the Canadians I have in mind aren’t part of the business world. They come from the non-profit sector—specifically, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada.
Since 2008, EWB has published its annual Failure Reports. Here’s their rationale:
EWB believes that success in development is not possible without taking risks and innovating—which inevitably means failing sometimes. We also believe that it’s important to publicly celebrate these failures, which allows us to share the lessons more broadly and create a culture that encourages creativity and calculated risk taking.
Without a doubt, it’s a tricky strategy. What will donors think when they hear that the money they gave last year went towards a failed project? And what will they think when they know that this year’s projects may appear in a Failure Report next year? My hope is that many already understand that things don’t always work out as planned, and that they also recognize that it’s not the lack of failure but what it’s members learn from that failure that makes an organization successful.
DIY Failure Reporting
In order to get more people on board, Ashley Good, editor of the Failure Report and EWB’s “Head of Failure,” founded Admitting Failure and Fail Forward. Admitting Failure is a website for sharing failure stories, and Fail Forward is a consulting firm that helps businesses, funders, and non-profits “learn, innovate and build resilience.”
Good’s efforts have garnered a lot of attention from the media, and in 2012, because of her work with Fail Forward, she was a winner of the Harvard Business Review/McKinsey M-Prize: Innovating Innovation Challenge. That’s a long way from the Failure Report‘s humble beginnings. I guess you could say it’s quit the . . . uh . . . success story.
Telling the Fail Forward story at the M-Prize site, Goode writes that the idea for the Failure Reports came from Nick Jimenez. While in a pre-departure training session before joining an EWB project in Ghana, Jimenez asked the organization’s co-founder “how EWB could claim humility while often bragging about greatness and virtually never talking about mistakes or failures.”
Then, about a year later, Jimenez and his fellow staff members in Africa took matters into their own hands and collected their stories of failure, and the first, grassroots, Failure Report was born. Since then, the report has grown to the point that the forward for the 2010 edition was written by Bill Gates, and other organizations have followed suit, sharing their own stories of failure, and gleaning lessons from them.
So how about you? Would you like to join them? Are you itching to see your own failures in print? No problem. Just download Fail Forward’s Failure Reports: A How-To Guide, and you’ll be on your way.
And if you still need inspiration, here’s EWB’s David Damberger:
Face-to-Face Fail Sharing
Maybe you need to be around fellow failers to get the ball rolling. If so, you can attend a FailFaire. In fact, there’s one in Rome, going on today. Sponsored by the UN agency The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). the faire’s title is “How to Make Failure a Stepping Stone to Success.”
The folks at FailFaire (as far as I can tell, they’re not related to EWB, nor are they Canadians) are a generous lot, so if you’d like to go so far as to host your own faire, they’ve made their concept open source, with the name, logo, and website contents available for duplication under a Creative Commons License. Also, at “How To: Roll Your Own FailFaire,” they give seven guidelines for making a faire work, including the necessity of creating a safe environment, or “Having the Right People in the Room”:
You want people who are there to learn, not to be voyeuristic; there to be constructive, not to be snarky or malevolent. People who genuinely care about their work and want to do better. People who are ok with some irreverence and humor, because failure is hard to talk about without it.
So there you have it. The idea’s out there. It’s just up to the rest of us to stand up and acknowledge where we’ve fallen down, sometimes in spectacular ways. My first thought is “Sounds great. You go first.” But that’s already been taken care of . . . by those Canadians.
Thanks to them, and to all the others, who are blazing the trail and setting the tone. Here’s to more organizations—and people—who will model and promote cultures of safety, humility, and transparency.
Those are pretty good goals in my book.
*If my list of Canadian attributes doesn’t strike your fancy, try out this article from the January 1913 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Some Canadian Traits.” The author, a W. A. Chapple of London, describes Canadians as, among other things, frank, open, generous, busy, trying to make money, kind, friendly, having no class distinctions, corruptors of the English language, apathetic in business, respecters of law and order, diligent, prejudiced against Americans, having integrity, lacking spiteful rivalry, and loyal. According to Chapple, the biggest threat to their character comes not from within their own borders but from their neighbors to the south. “There is one danger ahead,” he writes. “The States will spread over Canada. They may Americanize her.”
(David Smooke, “Most Important Job Interview Question—’When Have You Failed,’” SmartRecruiters; Ashley Good, “Story: Fail Forward,” MIX M-Prize, December 21, 2012; Anne Ryan Heatwole, “How To: Roll Your Own FailFaire,” FAILFaire, January 24, 2012)