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A brighter shade of fail: openness, adaptation and learning

17 Jul

I was on the phone the other day to an organisation, discussing the challenges of maintaining culture at a time of growth,  when I was asked if I could give “a couple of examples where organisations had failed to do so successfully“. Having shared a couple of examples where I felt that had been the case, it got me thinking how we continue to only discuss failure in closed conversations, back-channel discussions, confidential peer-to-peer programmes, internally within organisations, or privately over drinks. And yet it is a truth universally acknowledged that the best learning comes from mistakes, missteps and failures; indeed, that was why the question was asked on the call: “can we learn from other organisations, so we can improve and do things more effectively“….


Of course, it’s completely understandable why failure stays mostly behind closed doors. When something goes awry (be it big or small), people want to move on from it, not do a speaking tour on the ins and outs of the mistakes they made. There may also be reasons behind something not working that either can’t be made public or are simply due to unavoidable external circumstances. And it is also rare that something is simply “a failure”; it’s rarely that black and white or binary in nature, and the reality is often messier, greyer and more mixed: an organisation that closes down may have achieved huge impact (and a huge legacy), while an entrepreneur may make both mistakes and inspired judgements in close proximity. How often do you look back and say you would go back and do it differently if you could?


I’m intrigued by this relationship between failure and success: the fact that small ‘failures’ actually help us learn and achieve more, and achieve it more effectively….and avoid ‘big’ failures. This is something at the heart of Tim Harford’s book Adapt…which is an illuminating read for those interested in business and problem-solving alike. Harford’s central thesis is that the way to solve complex problems is to experiment and adapt. Or, more precisely, to try new things in the sure knowledge that some will fail; to make those failures survivable; and to evaluate (aka knowing when you’ve failed and why).


This starts to give us an indication of how we can build failures and learning into our organisational processes, to really get to a position where continuous improvement (and incremental innovation) is a reality not an aspiration. And to a point where this moves beyond piloting and testing the market by individual entrepreneurs who are learning-by-doing; instead, we need to move to a place where this is built into our internal systems and processes.


As for the public side of failure, maybe it just needs reframing, or included in future awards ceremonies: best comeback, most resilient social entrepreneur, most dignified exit, finest legacy….until we get to these levels of acceptance, we’ll continue to not only miss out on the richest, most practical learning but also risk giving an overly positive (or narrow) view of a sector that suffers the same range of mishaps, closures, successes and comebacks as the commercial world.

All that you leave behind

1 May

I’ve been finalising some pieces of work for my old employer, including the launch of their forthcoming evaluation. There’s lots in there, but the bit that has resonated with me over the last few days has been about the ‘ripple effect’ that individuals can have (in this case, social entrepreneurs): inspiring others, passing on experience + expertise, mobilising volunteers, employing locally and so on. Much of which is difficult to quantify, but extremely valuable.

Having been at one organisation for a long time, it’s also inevitable to think about my own personal impact there: projects overseen; strategies implemented; contributions made. There’s also a flipside with the life of the freelancer, who usually drops in to an organisation or project, makes a contribution, then leaves and moves on to the next thing. Is the contribution constructive, useful, implemented, practical? Does it move the project forward? Or, to put it another way, the question on both counts is “What did I leave behind?”

Which is why it was a pleasure to get a package through the post this week which took me back to the first organisation I’d ever worked at. I worked with a phenomenal social entrepreneur called Nicholas Albery. He started too many initiatives for me to list here; suffice to say it encompassed everything from learning poetry by heart to declaring a part of West London independent from the UK to ecologically-friendly funerals. One of the myriad things he started was a walking club, which was connected to a book he authored: the Time Out Book of Country Walks. You could do one of the 52 walks whenever you wanted, but if you did them on a particular weekend (according to the rota in the book), you would find yourself with the self-organised walking club.

It was (and is) a brilliant idea, combining many of Nicholas’ loves: walking, nature, health, community, togetherness. The strength of the idea is best illustrated by what happened when Nicholas tragically died in 2001. Members of the Walking Club he created wrote a new book of walks in his honour; I negotiated and co-ordinated with Time Out, drew the maps (!) and edited / proofed their excellent text…and this was ultimately printed as the Time Out Book of Country Walks vol. 2. A great testament to Nicholas, and a fitting tribute from the people he’d inspired and brought together.

Both the walking books have just been reprinted (all the proceeds from both still go to support charities that Nicholas set up), and those involved were kind enough to send me a couple of complimentary copies. They’ve been improved and updated (still by the members of the walking club, working with Time Out), and it was great to see that they are still going, still providing thousands of people with enjoyment each year, and still raising thousands of pounds for charity as well.

What an amazing legacy Nicholas left behind: the Walking Club + books are just one example…and he is an example too. I’d be happy to leave even a hundredth of the impact he did in the things I do.

Do charities need intelligence analysis?

26 Feb

Catching up on reading is one of the side-benefits of a freelance lifestyle, and I’ve been enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw. I felt that Blink and Outliers were more like extended magazine articles than books (unlike the Tipping Point), so this book is perfect as it’s a collection of his magazine articles. Having skipped through chapters on the Talent Myth and Why Job Interviews Don’t Matter (all a bit too pertinent right now), I was fascinated by his look at intelligence analysis.

He writes about 9/11 and the oft-reported intelligence failures that allowed it to take place (aka why didn’t they connect the dots of all the various relevant pieces of information they had). His take on it is that intelligence has changed: from solving a ‘puzzle’ to solving a ‘mystery’. By which he means that in the past, intelligence officers would receive information, then work out the ‘answer’ to whatever the puzzle was. So the key task was getting enough information, then working it out.

But the opposite is now true: all the intelligence agencies have more than enough information; in fact, they have too much. It’s easy to look back after the event (as with 9/11) and connect the dots, but at the time there were hundreds of thousands of dots, all of which could have been relevant or a red herring or completely unconnected. In essence, therefore, intelligence has shifted from being one of passively receiving information and using it to get the answer (solving a puzzle) to actively utilising networks, information and data to ‘write’ the story / narrative, work out the players, the next steps to follow and undertand the complexities of the whole picture (solving a mystery).

What occurred to me reading it is that this isn’t a million miles from the realities of what is needed in many organisations, in public, private and social sectors. The ability to:

–       be well-networked (on- and offline) to receive and transmit information

–       assimilate and collate that data and information

–       read and review it at speed to identify what is key

–       edit and summarise it into manageable / usable formats and documents

–       relate and integrate it to mission, strategy and impact

–       communicate it clearly and simply to influence and inform decisions

In working with people across the social enterprise and charity worlds, it soon becomes apparent that, in regard to most questions, challenges and problems, there is no right answer. They are not puzzles, but mysteries in an ever-more networked world full of information and data.

Which makes the role of the intelligence analyst a key one not only for the FBI, CIA, MI6 and the rest, but also for organisations seeking to be neither overwhelmed by an unrelenting flow of information, nor left behind because they missed the key moves, shifts and opportunities. The stakes might not be as high (to say the least) but charities and social enterprises should be thinking about which person or persons plays that role for them; it could be key to the future of the organisation.