How to Fail Forward

By Rachel Jansen and Ashley Good

It is painful to acknowledge when we don’t meet our goals and objectives and, particular to the international development sector, we worry about how our funders will react.  The paradox of this conundrum is that we all know failure can be the best teacher, and we have to be open and talk about our failures in order to learn. More than that, openly acknowledging failure is what it takes to catalyze overdue or otherwise needed change.

Despite this knowledge, it is hard for us to overcome our fear of losing the trust or respect of those around us when we share our failures. Creating and preserving a safe space where it is possible to share is easier said than done. At Engineers Without Borders Canada, this safe space is created through the collaborative effort of all of those involved in the organization.

The annual Failure Report, first launched in 2008, has helped Engineers Without Borders Canada build an identity around addressing root causes with systemic innovations and talking openly about the failures along the way. The Failure Report is part of our commitment to studying what works and what doesn’t, because we know that this learning process is paramount to our success.  Every member of Engineers Without Borders Canada, whether they would be likely to talk about failures otherwise or not, knows that to stay consistent with this identity they are expected to share and reflect on their failures.

In order to generate workable and sustained solutions in dynamic and complex environments, it is necessary to learn by doing, push the boundaries and try new ideas.  Knowing that every problem tackled is a complex one forces our team to accept that there will be elements of both success and failure in everything we do. Pushing the boundaries of what has been tried before will sometimes lead to even more failure, but all these failures can open the door to success— if we allow them.

Creating a New Culture

The first step in creating a safe space to discuss failure is to change the way organizations think about failure.  Rather than seeing failure as shameful, organizational leaders must foster the understanding and appreciation that failure can be a tool for innovation and a catalyst for solving complex problems. Promoting this attitude means challenging long-held traditions in which we celebrate only clear-cut successes.

We have to face facts–there are complex geo-political and socio-cultural conditions unique to every community in the Global South. What works in one location may fail miserably in another.  Given these realities, it is critical that failure be more widely acknowledged, studied and accepted. Creating organizational cultures that embrace the study of failure to improve learning and innovation may also mean acknowledging that the inverse is true: “failure denial” is a dishonest approach that impedes experimentation and complex problem-solving. In Engineers Without Borders Canada’s case, the transparency around failure has become a source of pride and a unique characteristic that sets it apart from other organizations; it communicates our desire to change the status quo and pursue innovative solutions to complex problems.

In order for failure to be presented in this light, it is absolutely critical to have buy-in and support from the highest levels of management. Organizational norms tend to form top-down. If a CEO is willing to be a role model and admit his or her own failures, or at least offer incentives for the brave first few front line employees who step forward to speak openly about their learning, the adoption of the practice will be accelerated. We all fail. Talking about it as peers, regardless of one’s position, builds the empathy, trust and a safe space to continue doing so.

Communicating about Failure

Sometimes it is particularly difficult to share our failures, because doing so will implicate others and reveal their involvement in that failure. In such cases it is necessary to gain permission and possibly input from all parties involved in a failure before sharing it with anyone else. Instances such as these often prove to be the most beneficial for learning because they may lead to deeper discussion concerning why the failure occurred, and the differing perspectives of individual parties will ensure that the whole story is displayed with reduced bias, resulting in more learning for everyone involved.

It is rare to find a failure worth talking about that isn’t the result of multiple factors. To further maximize learning from failure and to get at the heart of the cause, stories should be communicated with appreciation for the influence of all the factors on the final outcome, rather than with blame. This may include discussion of  past experiences, environmental conditions, external factors and situations, input from others, assumptions and momentum factors that all contributed to the decisions and actions which led to the failure. This makes it easier to discuss and truly understand why the failure occurred in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Although it is important to share stories of failures in a way that avoids casting blame, it is also important to avoid sugar-coating them. Owning up to one’s own failures and maintaining a dedication to honesty and humility is at the heart of making this work. Trying to euphemize failures as “lessons learned” or never tackling the tough failures and sticking to the no-risk variety undermines the cultural transformation needed for employees to dream big, take risks and maximize the organizational potential for innovation.

Innovative New Pathways

At Engineers Without Borders Canada, this culture shift towards organizational learning has begun to attract employees who already possess this mindset. Additionally, a culture that encourages staff to act on ideas and creativity will attract those who are already imaginative risk-takers– people who want to challenge the status quo, get creative, and take risks in the interest of testing new ideas and approaches to solve old problems. Imagine creating a community in which it is okay to take a risk, push oneself and even fail – as long as you share and learn from it.

Changing the way we look at failure, to overcome our fear of it and genuinely treating it as a learning opportunity is difficult, but not impossible. Organizations like Engineers Without Borders Canada and those who have published stories to have already begun the process of accepting and appreciating their failures as opportunities for building organizational resilience and sharing them so that others might feel safe doing the same.

Interested in bringing this Fail Forward approach into your organization? Check out

Ashley Good started Admitting Failure and Fail Forward to spark a shift in how civil society perceives and talks about failure and to help organizations learn, innovate and build resilience. She also built and continues to lead EWB’s Organizational Learning Team and annual Failure Report. Ashley has  spent the past three years working with a range of organizations—from donors and foundations to non-governmental organizations and private sector companies—to use failure as a learning tool and culture driver to support and foster innovation. Her work on failure has received coverage in a wide range of media and news outlets, including the Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Guardian, Harvard University’s Hauser Center for NonProfit Organizations.

Mary Fifield