“If we were studying for a spelling bee”, said Erik Qualman, “we wouldn’t review easy words. We’d test ourselves with more difficult spellings”. Not to challenge ourselves before the competition would be considered a reckless and inefficient way to prepare to step onto the stage. In fact, a training process that isn’t full of mistakes and stumbles is one that remains comfortable, sedentary, and ultimately hinders progress.
This attitude of embracing challenges and welcoming difficulty underpins Qualman’s renowned adage that we must, if we hope to succeed, learn how to “fail fast, fail forward, and fail better”. Ultimately, increasing our capacity to learn means increasing the number of our failures; as long as we are failing fast (breaking projects into smaller tasks so we can experiment with fewer consequences) and failing forward (using failures as learning opportunities that hone the route towards a successful outcome).
It was Qualman’s speech at ASAE’s 2016 Technology Conference that inspired Joni Tyler (Head of CPD, RIBA), Susie Kay (Director at the Professionalism Group) and I to put together a conference that celebrated the flawsome. We wanted to create a space in which association professionals could share stories of their ‘epic fails’, and learn how mistakes can lead to disruptive and surprising positive change.
Facing, and owning, failure is important for a number of reasons. Not only is failing often essential to creativity and innovation, but the consequences of hiding away from failure can be disastrous. What would air travel look like, for example, if aviation specialists weren’t dedicated to analyzing mistakes through the recovery of black boxes? We need to move away from burying our blunders and fearing our fails, so that we can work to ensure that future mistakes are prevented.
Whilst working for a leading UK association I recently saw, first hand, the repercussions of burying failure. The result was a 3 year project that was not properly managed (in partnership with a software house). Due to major project management failings and the more agile approach of a competitor, the project continued for 3 years until it was finally shut down. The price tag - $20m of members monies and significant opportunity cost in terms of staff time. #epicfail.
When it comes to our associations, we need both to confront our failures honestly, and ensure that solid project management principles are in place to minimize the consequences of a failing project. With an accountable board, a plan, a risk register, a gated approach to change requests, and regularly reviewed KPIs, a project can both anticipate and deal with failure. In fact, a face-on confrontation with our failures can help us recognize what we do best, and prevent our organizations from jumping onto bandwagons that don’t play to our strengths.
When failure is not understood as a possibility, we consistently see a lack of appropriate planning and project management. Taking our potential to err seriously means putting things in place that can deal with failure: fail to plan, and you plan to fail.
This article was written in partnership with the MemberWise Network, a UK based professional network of 4,500 professionals focused on sharing success/failure to drive membership value, engagement and growth.