Friday, March 26, 2010

Fail Fairs

Failure - or the notion that we should publicly share our stories about what doesn't work in our scramble to innovate - is becoming the New Cool. Rather than launch a quixotic war on failure, some social sector leaders are saying that we should be using what we've learned to fail better, to learn from the past so that we may, collectively, meet the challenges we share. [What has to die so that better initiatives might live?]

Sure, social innovation leaders have been talking for a while now about the importance of sharing what works and what doesn't. But now, as collaboration gains momentum across the social sectors, the notion of failure as a critical ingredient of innovation -- and cross-sector learning -- appears to be gaining a new sense of urgency.

Earlier this week, global thought and action network PopTech released the theme of its annual October gathering in Maine, something that many social entrepreneurs look to as an intellectual context for their work. [Last year's theme was America, Re-imagined.] This year, PopTech's theme is Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs. It's an opportunity to remind ourselves why failure is vital - and to gain inspiration and new energy around the kind of risk-taking that's required for innovation to occur. [Some of the questions PopTech will be exploring include: What do radically different disciplines and ways of thinking have to teach each other? Why do some ideas work at a grand scale, and others only locally? How can small changes to our 'default' options lead to breakthroughs? Every visionary starts as a heretic, so how do ideas and their champions move from the edge to the center?]

The failure theme also is getting impetus from cofounder Katrin Verclas. Earlier this month, Verclas began inviting people in the mobiles-for-social-change space to share their failures, in preparation for Fail Faire, an event she is hosting in New York on April 14. Says Verclas:

"Projects succeed, projects fail. The successes are reported on, the failures are filed away -- or, in the case of most ICT 4 Development or Mobile 4 Development projects, pushed under the proverbial rug. Well, it's time to bring out the failures, with a sense of humor and with an honest look at ourselves."

Verclas, who has been a voice for innovation in the mobiles space for years, added: "If we understand what doesn't work in this field ... we can collectively learn and get better, more effective, and have a greater impact as we go forward."

Lucy Bernholz, a blogger, consultant and change activist in the philanthropy space, also has been voicing the need for nonprofit innovators to be more collaborative and open in their work -- chiefly more transparent about their hits and misses in their struggles to reshape their strategies in the face of the Web's continued radical evolution. Her recent Open Philanthropy: A Modest Manifesto urged the sharing of what works and what doesn't, triggering a continuing debate in the sector about risk and transparency.

Certainly, failure isn't just considered a value for start-up entrepreneurs, something to emphasize on a resume as proof of wisdom and experience. Talking about failure can have the effect of de-stigmatizing risk, catalyzing in-house innovators, and inspiring more of us to build systems that fail better.

How many of you are using social media to share failure stories as tools for collaborative learning, online and off? Does it trigger new levels of learning? What is needed in the storm of disruptive innovation to make people feel more secure about what they share?

Let us hear from you.

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Andrea Danti for
(This post first appeared on and appears here with permission)

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