Failing forward

(cross posted on Alliance Magazine's Blog)


Thomas Edison is supposed to have said, "I haven't failed, I've found 10,000 things that don't work." Failure of this form is a popular topic of conversation among philanthropists these days. It fits in with their interests in design thinking, rapid prototyping, and much of the literature on how innovation happens. In technology innovation in particular, the idea of "failing fast" (and cheaply) is almost gospel.

I'm all for the principle of "failing fast" and learning from our missteps. Given all the focus on outcomes and measurement and learning that have come to be part of philanthropy, we ought to be getting better at knowing when we're succeeding and, concomitantly, when we're failing. One challenge has been finding ways to talk about our mistakes. As a sector, we've been much more willing to talk about talking about failing, than to actually talk about failure.

There are a couple of interesting efforts under way to help us along with this.

One of these is the development community's website "Admitting Failure." There you can "browse failures," "Search for Failures" and "Share a failure." Stories come from individuals speaking from their own experience and from organizations. Some of the stories include just the facts, others provide the author's perspective on what went wrong and what could have been done better.

To get the ball rolling the hosts of the site are offering the "Institute of Brilliant Failures" prize - applications are due by October 2011 - submit yours here. Hats off to those who've taken the step of getting the conversations started. Judging by the lack of comments on the posts, the rest of us are still to shy to chime in and keep the conversations going. The site comes to us from the folks at Engineers Without Borders.

Another effort is FailCon - short for fail conference. This is focused on the software community and I like their purpose statement: "to study their own and others' failures and prepare for success." A social sector version called FailFaire was held in 2010, looking specifically at failures in technology deployment in the social sector. A great effort that we should think about taking more broadly.


Finally, I've been watching the development of a site called WorkingExamples.org I learned of it while writing the paper, Evaluating Innovation as part of the MacArthur Foundation's work on Digital Media and Learning. The idea behind Working Examples is to share work in progress, gather feedback, find related or countering ideas, and “connect ideas.” While not specifically about failure, working examples are, by definition “in progress.” They may be half-baked. They may need a lot of tweaking. By building a place for people to share work at this stage, the WorkingExamples site provides a place for ideas to be “adjacent” to other ideas that might nudge them along or help them become fully formed.

Using the WorkingExamples site is technically easy and culturally hard. Most of us aren’t that good at sharing raw ideas and getting feedback. Few of our institutions encourage us to do this; in fact they encourage exactly the opposite. What interests me about the cultural effects of blogging and tweeting is that they thrive on us sharing short ideas and “raw” writing. They work because we’ll put something out early, comment and share on it, revise it, and keep the conversation going. If we can bring those same behaviors to sharing our substantive ideas and our work in progress I think we’ll all benefit.

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