Start Failing... or Get Out Of The Way

The plenary session this morning at the Nonprofit Technology Conference (#13NTC) was all about failure – how you define it, what to learn from it, why it’s important, and the critical need for the nonprofit/social good/philanthropy community to do a better job embracing it.  I was privileged to sit on stage with Allyson Burns from the Case Foundation (@allieb37), Erin Shy from Sage Nonprofit (@ErinShy), Megan Kashner from Benevolent (@BenevolentNet)… and our host, moderator and fearless leader, Beth Kanter (@kanter)… and help to focus and drive the conversation.

I think everyone – on stage and in the audience – agrees that a) failing is an inevitable part of the important work required to change the world and address critical issues that challenge our society, b) that it is far more productive to look for ways to learn and adapt when things fall apart then it is to dwell on mistakes or cast blame, and c) that making the most of failing gets easier the more you do it and the more support you have in the process.  That’s a pretty big deal if you think about it – that a seemingly difficult, potentially uncomfortable conversation about people and organizations involved in the nonprofit/social change/philanthropy space needing to fail more, fail smarter, and fail better was not met with any obvious disagreement or anger.

But let me be clear: having consensus on the need to fail more, fail smarter, and fail better won’t do anything to change how we think, how we act, or the work we are doing to address serious issues that are challenging our society.  In fact, having agreement on those core points is probably a bad thing.  We will get lazy.  We will assume that our acknowledgement of the fruits of failure will organically result in a noticeably different way of operating. 

It won’t. 

Thinking about, talking about, understanding, even appreciating the value of failure won’t change anything.  We have to push beyond failing as some sort of amusing intellectual discussion and start to do things differently.  We need to force failure.

In my closing comment at the plenary I issued a simple challenge: start failing. Just do it. Just fucking do it.

You can fail big. You can fail small.  You can fail a lot. You can fail a little.  The key is to start failing.  And to keep failing – over and over and over again.  To fail all the time.  To force yourself, your organization, the people you work with, the community of people and groups working to address an issue or cause to fail.  To fail more. To fail smarter. To fail better.

I am challenging you to fail.  And if you aren’t willing – if you aren’t committed – then I want you to get out of the business. Do something else. Work on something different. The issues that we need to address are real.  The big challenges that are facing our society are serious and only growing and become more complex.  We need to be faster, smarter and better if we are going to succeed – and to do that we need to understand the role that failing plays in our work, and use our failing to do something amazing.

I also give you permission to fail.  It won’t be easy.  It can get messy.  Even the people who very confident in their ability to turn failing into awesomeness will tell you how failing can be exhausting and punishing.  But failing is important – necessary in fact – and we are long overdue in the nonprofit/social change/philanthropy community to start getting better at failing.  So, if you need a note from me to pass along to your boss or your board or your funder, I will write one for you.  If you need a pep talk when things get difficult and confusing, I will provide one.  If you need a tutorial on how to really make a mess of things, and come out stronger on the other side, I have plenty of personal and professional experiences to form a curriculum with.  But if you refuse to start failing, and really force things to happen, or you don’t take this challenge seriously, I want you to step aside.  I want you to find a different line of work.  If you aren’t going to enthusiastically use your ticket on the failure train, I want you to give your seat to someone else who is willing to step up and start to make things happen.

I fail all the time. I know it.  And I feel pretty confident in my ability to learn and adapt when I fail.  But I am just one person.  The benefits of my failing are limited – unless I fail in ways that others can benefit from.  I can do more to help others understand my mistakes, and what I learned from them.  We all can.  And when we do, it allows everyone else to focus their energy failing on different things.  To make new mistakes.  To get smarter. 

I challenge you.  I implore you.  I beg of you.  Start failing. Fail on your own.  Fail with others.  Fail in ways that we all will learn and benefit from. Do something. Anything. Just fucking do it.  And don’t look back.

Thank you for failing.