July 26, 2010

The Power of Positive Failure

Forner Bridgespan Partner David Simms says there's much to learn from when we fall short, if we're willing to admit to our mistakes.

(This weblog post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website.)

Positive failure: Isn't this an oxymoron? What good can come from failing? The answer, it seems, is "a lot."

I recently moderated a panel of nonprofit leaders titled, "So You Want To Be a Nonprofit Executive?" At one point, I asked each panelist to share a failure from which they had learned a valuable lesson. Believe it or not, they did so eagerly.

Steve Pratt, the CEO of My Turn, jumped right in and shared a great example of accepting a CEO job that, in retrospect, could have been done only by Superman. "There were too many stakeholders with competing agendas and different definitions of success," he said. "I convinced myself that my track record had given me superpowers that could overcome the fundamentals of effective strategy — no consensus means no strategy."

Ben Mahnke, the CFO of Facing History and Ourselves, described a situation in which his tendency to advocate strongly for his favored solution to a problem excluded others (and their ideas) from the debate. It once led him to "win the battle but lose the war." He said he placed too much emphasis on getting a particular course of action launched; the resulting program didn't have the necessary buy-in from his colleagues.

Panelist Amanda Fernandez, the vice president for diversity and inclusiveness at Teach for America, said she joined an organization early in her career without first assessing its culture and whether it fit her values — only to discover too late that it didn't.

Bridgespan's own Karen DeMay recalled working on a critical board search. Karen had a senior-level contact who had a relationship with a CEO that her client had targeted as a good candidate for board chair. When the contact offered to help with the search, Karen agreed, assuming that he would simply discuss her client organization and tee up an introduction. However, instead of connecting the two parties, the contact directly asked the CEO if he would be the organization's board chair. The CEO declined without ever learning about the client organization. Karen had failed to confirm with her contact how she wanted him to approach the CEO and the strategy she was taking for teeing up conversations with her client. As a result, the client lost out.

The panelists' experiences provided valuable insights for the audience of potential nonprofit leaders. But failures are often a taboo topic. When was the last time you talked about one of yours, even in private? Most nonprofits don't discuss individual or program failures, perhaps because they fear a loss of funding. Few foundations admit to supporting programs that don't work out, but we know there are thousands of grants made that don't achieve their desired results.

When we avoid discussing failures, we deprive both ourselves and our colleagues of the lessons we've learned from them. In Steve's and Amanda's cases, they learned important lessons about what to look for in a job. Steve had been too sure of himself and his ability to make things right when the structure of the job, viewed through any objective assessment, was clearly set up for failure. Amanda vetted culture and organizational values very carefully at Teach for America with CEO Wendy Kopp before accepting the new position. Ben learned the hard way the importance of building relationship capital and not always "being right." And Karen learned not to make assumptions about relationships when critical outcomes are at stake.

I didn't offer my own examples for the panel, but I could have shared the painful consequences of hiring a senior salesperson without first doing reference checks. He was essential to our revenue plan, but it turned out he couldn't close a sale! We also once added someone to a nonprofit board who had a stellar CV but little commitment to the cause. He ended up making no discernible impact on the nonprofit before leaving three years later, all the while occupying a valuable board seat and depriving the organization of the ideas and actions a more-engaged person might have brought to the table.

Whatever the consequences, the painful lessons you've learned, if shared appropriately, can certainly benefit someone else. I'm challenging myself — and you — to be willing to share those stories that have less than happy endings. We can help others, and maybe even learn something more about ourselves in the process.

So what about you? What have you learned from failure? Does your organization tolerate failure? Does the culture allow you to share lessons openly?

David Simms is a former partner at The Bridgespan Group, where he led the firm's Leadership and Careers initiative.

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