Ashley Good founded Fail Forward in 2010 to change the way people talk about and learn from failure. This social business has since grown to employ four part-time staff and work with organizations such as Engineers Without Borders.
One story really stood out on Fail Forward’s website. It was about one of Ashley’s friends who was determined to become the best hockey player after immigrating to Canada as a child so that she could better fit in. After weeks of careful practice her coach said to her, “you’re just not falling enough”. Ashley goes on to explain that, “Practice is for finding your edge. You want to know that exact point when you are leaning so hard into a play that you know the exact point between standing up and laying on the ice. Once you find that edge that you can push into every play as hard as you can.” By pushing ourselves to reach that scary point being on the brink of failure (or just plain falling into failure) we give ourselves permission take the risks that can often result in high rewards.
theSedge.org caught up with Ashley to pick her brain on what it takes to shift discussions around failure to improve organizational resilience and innovation.
What is the social issue or pain point that you are working on solving?
We’re taught how to succeed. We study it, we look to those who are successful to learn their secrets, we emulate our role models, and we invest in the tools, processes, and strategies that promise success. Let’s face it – just about every kind of education is focused on helping us to succeed faster, more often, and on bigger and bigger scales.
When it comes to failure, all we’re taught is to avoid it at all costs. It’s no surprise we react badly to it, and too often miss the opportunity to learn and improve – because we don’t know how to fail intelligently.
Fail Forward is dedicated to helping organizations fail intelligently. It is based on the fact that the most important issues we are trying to solve are incredibly complex and constantly changing. The pace of change of our world, and therefore the complexity of our problems, has surpassed our ability to learn and have the knowledge needed to solve them. As such addressing these issues necessarily involves trying, failing and adapting based on what is learned. So at its core, Fail Forward is truly about helping people and organizations use intelligent failure as a tool for solving our most wicked problems.
What inspired your solution to this issue?
I was working on a UN-funded agricultural project in Northern Ghana. After about six months with the team they started telling me about flaws in the way the project was designed. For example, the project was measured based on how many farmers it impacted. The goal was 300,000 farmers. What this actually looked like in implementation was that field staff had to take farmers out of their fields during harvest season in order to write down their information so that they could say they “impacted” one more person.
Not too long after I started to be brought in to these discussions an evaluator from the UN agency came to visit the project. He asked all the right questions about what was working, what wasn’t and what they could do to make it better. But when he asked what wasn’t working he got answers from the team such as “All is well. But we could use another printer, SUV, laptop.”
I wanted to pull my hair out. I asked my closest friend on the team afterwards why she hadn’t told the evaluator what she had told me and she basically laughed at me and said, “Ashley, we like our job.”
It was such an injustice. This project was staffed by some of the most talented agricultural development workers one could find. They were truly great at their jobs, great at working around the project design constraints and had great ideas for how to make the project better. And the evaluator was great at his job too. He did all the right things, cared about the project, invested his heart and soul into trying to make it work. And yet, they weren’t able to communicate in a way that would actually lead to the best outcome because they had no way of talking about what wasn’t working and doing so came with too much risk.
Upon returning to Canada I started to see this trend everywhere. “Failure is not an option” therefore it is nearly impossible for us to have open conversations about it. But it is only through accepting and tolerating a certain level of failure that we allow the space for innovation to thrive and ensure that we maximize our learning from everything we do.
So I decided to try to change how we think about and react to failures.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far working on this project and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge by far has been finding ever more effective ways to make this concept actionable. It is relatively easy to buy-in to the theory that speaking openly about failures is a good thing for learning and innovation. However, turning that buy-in into individual behavior and organizational culture change is deceptively difficult.
How I have been overcoming it (as I am still in the process and doubt I’ll ever be truly done) has been testing out different ideas on a small scale with clients, seeing what happens and adapting accordingly. In this way, I am constantly learning and evolving the practice while also using the method of learning by doing and taking smart risks that is at the core of what I espouse.
What advice would you give to your 10-years-younger self if you could speak with her now?
Focus on your connections to people. Yes, grades and awards and accomplishments are important but how you connect with others and make their life a just a little richer is really all that matters in the long run. Funny, as I write that I realize I still need to be giving my current day self that same advice sometimes!
If tomorrow was your last day on Earth how would you spend it?
I’d want to be up at my family’s house on the lake, having a BBQ, a bonfire and a sing-along. And possibly reflect on how grateful I am to have had such wonderful people and opportunities come my way.
The lesson we can learn from Ashley’s story and her work with Fail Forward is to value the learning in failure. She is also “living” her teaching as she continually tests out different ideas and adapts her offering as she collects new information and feedback from her clients.
There is so much opportunity for growing through acknowledging and celebrating our failures. Let’s remember to find our “edge” by falling down every once and while. In experiencing and sharing failure, we can push ourselves to step out of the safe zone and into where the magic happens.