3 tips for making the most of failure

Christine Prefontaine is a jill of many trades: strategist, organizer, writer, and advisor (among others). Through her extensive work in international development, as an advocate for reforming current publishing methods, and as founder of the social engagement and innovation consultancy Facilitating Change, she has encountered failures on levels large and small, and learned from each one. Here are some of her insights and advice.

I see two trends right now, in international development in particular, but in other fields, too: We want more transparency and openness but at the same time we want more innovation. These two trends, with our current ways of thinking, can clash with each other. For example, what if money is spent on something new and it doesn’t work and now stakeholders can see that?

Similarly, you can’t say to your client, “Those five hours I billed you for? Well, I didn’t get your deliverable done, but I learned a lot.” So while we may need to fail to innovate, certain types of failure may never be accepted.


Take it from Christine (left): Don’t be too afraid of going off the rails.

Then there’s FailFaire. Seeing and presenting at FailFaire [in 2012] was huge for me, because it’s this open forum to at least start talking about failure. People from consulting firms, government, activists, developers—everybody was there to talk about it.

I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm and joy at an event; the collective sigh of relief of, “We can finally talk about this stuff.”

So it’s just thrilling to me that we have these FailFaires now. I think they’re a great step in familiarizing more people with the concept of failure as an experience and process that we can benefit from.


1. Set yourself up for mini-fails.

I look at innovation broadly: often it means using things we already have to solve problems, but utilizing them in a new way. And in order to do that, you have to experiment, and when you experiment, it’s a given that you’ll screw up a lot. So build failure into your system—that’s the whole fail fast/fail forward thing.

Prototype and iterate and test quickly, at the most granular level you can, so that your failures are kept on a low level. That’s where failure is really helpful and less scary. Little models can show you what the big result would be. Don’t go too far down one path without testing or you’ll waste tons of time.

2. Make it okay to talk about failing.

In my career, I’ve tried to surface the reality of how things actually get done; to work transparently. It allows for more efficiency and learning if everyone involved can understand the nitty-gritty of how things actually work.

We all understand how it could be seen as undesirable or unimportant to talk about messing up, but you have to. And it’s a time issue, too—time has to be made to talk about what didn’t work, as much as a safe space has to be made in which to do it. But if we could make more space and time for failure, fewer things would snowball downhill.

3. “You can’t talk about failure without talking about learning.”

There will always be people who say that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry, especially in international development. But you just can’t talk about failure without talking about learning, whereas if you talk only about success, the learning tends to get vapid.

Also, stories about failure are more likely to go viral, for this reason among others, like the fact that we all love good gossip.

Actually, FailFaire could be called LearningFaire, because that’s what it really is, but the name they chose signals their attempt to inject some humor into the subject, which I think is one great step toward greater acceptance.

Reach out to Christine with your thoughts and questions through one of her websites or in the comments below.

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Idea File: Do you have what it takes to admit failure?


From Alex Proimos via Flickr/Creative Commons

Would you share a story about a time when you failed?

Recently I wrote about FailFaire, an event hosted by MobileActive.org that invites open discussion about failures in development. I love this concept because a) I’m a big fan of honesty and b) sharing stories and lessons can prevent us from making the same mistakes twice. It’s true most good ideas aren’t conceived in isolation – so isn’t it ideal to learn from those who tried before you?

Engineers Without Borders Canada agrees, so much so that they’ve created the website Admitting Failure for those of us in the social good world to publicly detail where we went wrong. Much like FailFaire, the overarching goal is to encourage people to see falling on your face not as shameful or embarrassing, but a necessary part of creating change.

Recently launched in January, it’s an admitted work-in-progress and the failures listed are a bit scarce at this point. So far you can read about the shortcomings of a GlobalGiving-supported soccer organization in Kenya; why an online community about climate change fell short; and how a CARE housing co-op project in Bangladesh missed all the right notes.

Of course, the challenges—such as pacifying donors and confronting our egos—remain. But it’s a dialogue worth pushing forward. And we’d love for you, the Idealist community, to be part of that conversation by leaving a comment below.

  • Tell us about a time in your life when you took action on an idea, but it didn’t work out the way you planned.
  • In the example that came to mind, what got in the way? What would have helped you at that point?
  • What advice would you give others to avoid the same mistakes?

Leave a comment, help someone else learn from what you tried, and we’ll consider featuring you on our home page!

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[Idea File] FailFaire: An event of errors

Confronting mistakes head on is often done in the business sector, but not so much in the nonprofit world. Why? There can be a lot at stake – maybe you have to answer to donors, or you work with vulnerable populations, or you’re worried about offending someone.

But mistakes happen. They happen often. And if we’re honest enough to admit our mistakes to ourselves and to others—and have a sense of humor about it—we can learn a lot.


Photo via Kristen Taylor (Flickr)

This is the philosophy behind FailFaire, an event hosted by MobileActive.org. The gathering focuses on errors related to MobileActive’s mission (using cell phones in development work). Attendees discuss how X project slipped through the cracks or why Y grant never came through. But instead receiving stern looks of disapproval, the atmosphere is open and supportive. Drinks and food are served alongside failures, and presenters are encouraged to be honest, light-hearted and even irreverent.

The idea is quickly catching on. The first FailFaire event was held in New York City this summer. The World Bank co-hosted an event in Washington, D.C. a few months later, and recently the Social Capital Market’s Conference copied the model and held one in San Francisco revolving around social entrepreneurship. The potential for FailFaire to be replicated all over the world, covering not only facets of the nonprofit sector but other fields as well,  is enormous.

If you’re failure-friendly, the site has a tip sheet of how to host your own event and a blog with some great stories and advice.

FailFaire could very well be the beginnings of a cultural shift in the nonprofit sector – and I have a feeling it won’t fail.

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