Where is Your Failure Report?

Engineers Without Borders logoIf your organization is populated by perfect people with a perfect track record, feel free to ignore this post. For the rest of you, I’d urge you to spend a little time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. This nonprofit was founded in 2000 by two young engineers who had “a dream of an organization that would enable engineers to contribute something other than another bridge or another electrical grid.” Since then, the organization has built its fair share of wells in Africa, but it has also moved beyond those projects to tackle some really big ideas:

Some are social enterprises that bring affordable financing the rural entrepreneurs. Some improve African government service-delivery and decision-making. And some mobilize Canadians and engineers to create change in areas like ethical consumption. All challenge the status quo and provide radical alternatives to unjust systems.

One key to the organization’s growth and success has been failure. Or, more precisely, it’s gutsy approach to failure. These engineers understood early on that they couldn’t move forward if they did not learn from both their own experience and the experiences of others. A critical part of this was learning from failure. But how can one do this when few people own up to their failures? To address this, Engineers Without Borders Canada set out to create a new learning and innovation culture in which disclosing, discussing and even celebrating failure would not only be possible but, in fact, be expected. While a conversation behind closed doors might be tempting from a risk and reputation management perspective, Engineers Without Borders Canada puts its money where its mouth is: this organization discloses its failures publicly. Since 2008, the organization has published an annual Failure Report that contains “strong reflections on misaligned expectations, misplaced intentions, and incorrect assumptions.”  That’s right — they put it out there for the entire world to see.  They put it out there for their donors to see. Talk about transparency and accountability.

So why should any of this matter to someone working in a professional services firm or other for-profit business? If your organization is serious about innovation and improved performance, it has to confront the results of experiments gone wrong. And, it has to do so in a culture that supports learning rather than lynching. Engineers Without Borders Canada seeks to help all organizations build a supportive culture through storytelling. Their aim is to encourage as many organizations as possible to come clean about what’s really going on. Why?

The more stories that are shared, the easier it becomes to share your own. Slowly but surely, failure becomes less of the “F Word,” and a more commonplace, even celebrated vehicle for humility, learning, and innovation.

Striving for Humility is the title of the 2013 Annual Report of Engineers Without Borders Canada. While I don’t expect anyone in a law firm to draft a report with that title, consider what you might write if you told the truth about what’s happening on your watch. What would change if you successfully identified repeatable lessons that could be shared with your colleagues. What if those lessons were incorporated in your organization’s operating procedures? To be clear, this is not about paying lip service to transparency with an occasional after action review or, worse still, a database of lessons learned that no one ever consults. Rather, this is about encouraging attitudes and behaviors that enable us to share knowledge, learn and innovate. It’s about creating an organizational culture that is more honest and, perhaps, a tad more humble.

So in that spirit, I’ll ask again: Where is your failure report?

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