Learning from Failure

Adrianne Geiger Dumond

Adrianne Geiger Dumond


As the end of 2015 looms ahead nonprofits evaluate the effectiveness of their activities for the year. Sometimes results are disappointing – a program fails, a fundraising event flops, a school contract or a grant is cancelled. The manner in which a leader or manager handles the disappointment can make a difference in the next steps – especially for the future decision making.

“The best workplaces are formed on the foundation of trust, and trust is forged or lost not when things are going great, but rather when they’re not. That’s when team members really learn whether their bosses and peers have their backs.”[1]

So how can leaders and managers put the disappointment of failure to work? The above authors provide three practical steps.

  • Share the blame, show humility. None of us are infallible, so it helps ease the pain of failure by those involve, if the ‘boss’ reveals incidences when he or she experienced failure – especially if it has a future positive learning. Remember that a work culture where ‘failure is not an option’ leads to deception and cover up, and the chance of even more serious failures in the future.
  • Ask the right questions. And it is not ‘who was responsible’, which sounds like looking for blame. Better questions are the ‘what, where, how, and why’. After all, the scope of the project involved many decisions along the way, which need to be examined carefully. In a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the three main reasons for failure in 2014 were: (1) Poor estimates in the planning process, (2) Changes in scope mid-project, and (3) Insufficient resources. While these findings may apply to for-profit businesses, they probably apply to nonprofits working in the present business climate.
  • Make the ending count. While we cannot predict which projects or programs will fail, leaders and managers can certainly control the aftermath of failure. “Behavioral economists have shown that our future expectations are influenced greatly by our memories of how emotionally powerful experiences end.”[2] While failure can shake confidence, it is imperative that innovation and creativity not suffer because of bad experiences.

This is the essence of making failure a learning experience that can draw a team closer together and lead to successes for the future.

[1]1. Source: Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26, 2015, from the book ‘The Other “F” word: How Smart Leaders, Teams, and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work’ by John Danner and Mark Coopersmith

[2]. Same source.

Author: Adrianne Geiger DuMond, Executive Coaches of Orange County, www.ECofOC,org