I’m glad to see the increasing focus on failure in the nonprofit world. More people have submitted their stories about failures to the Web site Admitting Failure–although it’s still, unfortunately, limited to just a few organizations.
Following my recent post, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sent me a copy of its anthology, “To Improve Health and Health Care.” The first four chapters are devoted to failure and learning from our mistakes. The foundation also publishes this information on its Web site so that everyone has access to what it has learned.
I’ve enjoyed the candor in the foundation’s self-evaluation.
The authors even admit that they haven’t yet perfected the process: “The foundation is striving to develop a culture whereby the staff and board learn from the results of its programs, both positive and negative, though foundation staff members candidly confess that there is a long way to go.”
The first of the four chapters discusses the root cause of program failure, which always boiled down to one of three problems:
- Strategic design flaws
- Difficult environmental context
- Faulty execution
The foundation then provides five lessons from its failed projects:
- Manage your expectations.
- Clarify objectives and strategies.
- Focus on goals but remain strategically flexible.
- Monitor and assess programs.
- Deal with programs that don’t meet expectations.
I encourage anyone who is interested in this topic to read more. After all, as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says in its book, “We have chosen to avoid the word ‘failure’ since even programs that do not work as expected can provide valuable lessons and directions for the future. … Failure occurs when lessons are not learned or communicated to others.”
Admitting failure is the first step, learning from it is even more important.