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Where do you find your organization’s best learning?
By Jill Pfitzenmayer / June 3, 2014 /   Loading Disqus...
Most of us are very comfortable touting our organization’s strengths and assets. We like to share our success stories with board members, funders and peers. We use anecdotes as well as data to support the ways in which we are making the world a better place. But if we are, in fact, always good at what we do, then how will we ever learn? Is it possible to be a great organization that also makes mistakes? Yes, of course it is. But only a truly great organization is strengthened through the process of learning from its mistakes. I think that some organizational leaders become fearful of the consequences of mistakes or failure and limit organizational risks. This, I believe, is a mistake in itself.

To be clear: I am not advocating sloppy or ineffectual work. But I am calling for greater willingness to take some calculated risks and use them as a platform for organizational learning. Learning is most potent when we are surprised—when a program doesn’t go the way we expected, or when we miscalculate the impact of an intervention. As the saying goes, “fail early and often” to refine your thinking, and use failure to inform your process moving forward.

I was surprised to learn that there is a great deal of serious inquiry into the process of failure; there are websites, books and even conventions devoted to failure and learning. Failure is a much more acceptable phenomenon in the profit arena than it is among nonprofits; for some reason, nonprofits have raised the stakes so that calculated risks are few and far between. That’s not to say that there are not failures in the nonprofit sector—there are certainly as many as in any other sector—but I don’t think we are as conversant in the failure recovery process as we could be.

So where do you find your organization’s best learning? Probably in the areas that are the least appealing- those that are not working or have somehow failed. I encourage nonprofit boards and leaders to honestly face their failures for the meaningful learning opportunities they present. Pick some small failures to discuss at a board meeting to get the discussion underway—perhaps a case that did not turn out well, an event that was sparsely attended or a fundraising goal that fell short. Try shaping the discussion around the elements of surprise (“we thought if we did X, then Y might happen, but instead it was Z”). And by the way—don’t use failure as a club to beat up yourself or your organization. No one learns well under those circumstances. Stay positive, be inquisitive, and use failure to figure out your alternatives.
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