Failing Forward: Why building failure into your organizational culture can make it more successful

Most people bristle at the sound of the “F” word. Failing is something to be ashamed of or something to use for deprecation (#FAIL, anyone?). But failing can be one of the most powerful tools your organization has to continuously innovate and improve its programs.

Failure is a learning opportunity

What do you do when a funding proposal gets rejected, an email campaign doesn’t have the engagement you expected, or a program doesn’t produce the desired results?

Do you get excited? You should.

You have just been given the chance to make your organization better. Failure means something (or some things) went wrong. By figuring out what went wrong and fixing it in future proposals, emails, programs, etc., you can improve the next one, making your organization better.

Data is the key

Your organization may collect data in order to analyze it and tell the story of your success, but it is also the best place to learn from your mistakes.

For example, say you send out an email fundraising campaign that ends up raising far less money than you predicted. Your next step would be to mine the data you have to see why.

You could look at the click-through rate on each link in the email, which might show you that the majority of clicks were on a link that went to your organization’s home page rather than your donation page. So on your next fundraising campaign, you might test an email that only has links to your donation page, or a prominent call-to-action on your homepage.

Or, you could look at the conversion rate on your donation page. Are visitors abandoning the donation process at a certain point? If so, you could test the number of pages in your donation process or the number of fields that donors are required to complete.

If your data is good, it will lead you to the cause of the failure. And once you find the cause, you can start figuring out how to fix it.

Creating a culture of failure

Most organizations are interested in creating a culture of success, or a culture of innovation, but to have continuing success or innovation in your organization, failure has to be an option.

Organizations that want to create a culture of success place a high value on results. This type of meritocracy tends to make employees risk-averse, or worse, willing to lie about their results in order to hide their failure.

A culture of failure, on the other hand, values the process more than the results of each individual initiative.

A culture of failure is a data-driven culture, where the highest value is placed not on the end result, but on why the end result happened. It celebrates failure, because without it, the organization, its people, and its programs can’t improve.

This isn’t an easy cultural shift, as Paul J.H. Schoemaker, author of Brilliant Mistakes and research director of Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological innovation, explains:

Most of the time, we run away from our mistakes. We don’t want to think about them. It’s an unpleasant experience. But once you start to realize that mistakes are treasures — gifts of sorts — then you say, “Now how can I create ecologies or environments where this happens more naturally, more fully?”

Chances are, mistakes will happen in your organization whether you encourage them or not. The key is changing your response to failure. Instead of it becoming something that needs to be covered up, a mistake should be explored, and not just by the person who made it. This is an opportunity for everyone at your organization to learn and benefit.

NASA takes the culture of failure – which it calls a culture of learning – on step further. In addition to the regular project team, every NASA project has what they call a SWAT team whose sole purpose is to track the failures of the project team and share learning from failures other teams have made.

Unfortunately, we don’t all have the resources NASA has to create a department whose main purpose is to share knowledge and learn from failure. But by creating an organizational culture where it’s safe to fail, where the process and the learning opportunity is more important than the end result, you can build a learning organization that will continuously improve and push its boundaries.

Michelle L. Chaplin
Senior Manager, Online Fundraising
Michelle Regal
Senior Manager of Online Fundraising
Michelle is a Senior Manager at PBS, where she manages manages the Best of PBS monthly newsletter, which has grown to more than 1.5M subscribers; and administers the Eloqua and Salesforce databases. Before joining PBS, she was a Program Manager at BRAC USA for more than four years, during which she provided marketing support and built an online, social media and traditional media strategy for the largest NGO in the world. Additionally, she’s implemented and maintained a several Salesforce and other CRM databases and developed multi-channel donor acquisition and retention strategies. Michelle has an MBA from the Stern School of Business at NYU and is a certified Salesforce Administrator and Developer.