Learning through ‘Failure’

By Rose Chilton, Research and Analysis Manager at Sported

The F Word - Learning through FailureThere has been a tendency for third sector organisations to shy away from talking about what hasn’t worked out. Perhaps this is due to pressure from funders, pressure we’ve put on ourselves (by claiming a larger impact or greater success rate than our grantee competitor), or a bit of both.


Other industries have embraced this ‘Growth Mind-set’. For example, Engineers without Borders publishes an Annual Failure Report, which highlights a number of failed projects, what can be learnt from them, and generates dialogue around the inherent challenges faced. The tech industry holds FailCon; a conference for start-ups to prepare for and learn from failure. This open dialogue helps to prevent repetition of the same mistakes, and allows the industries to iterate and improve quickly.


Reflecting on Black Box Thinking; that we cannot grow unless we are prepared to learn from our mistakes, and inspired by Street League’s pioneering social impact dashboard, Upshot and Sport Think Tank organised the first #TheFWord conference.


My four main takeaways on how to learn through failure, drawing mainly from Andy Reed OBE, Upshot, Street League, Social Value UK, Mandu Reid and Kura Aviation are outlined below.

If everything works out perfectly, it’s unlikely we were reaching the right people.

The social issues we are trying to address have perplexed for decades; it’s probably a difficult task and that’s why the issue hasn’t been solved yet. If everything goes smoothly it sounds too good to be true, and it probably was. Successfully transforming all the lives we touch means we probably weren’t reaching the most needy people or communities. We must ACKNOWLEDGE that what we are doing is challenging.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

In the aviation industry multiple improvements have been made in response to failure. As Captain Sully, who landed the ‘Miracle on the Hudson‘, said: “Almost every procedure we have, almost every rule in the Federal Aviation rulebook, almost every bit of knowledge we have is because someone, somewhere died.”  This includes better documenting activities and addressing shortcomings, but it took longer for the aviation industry to learn from ‘near misses.’ In 1989 Capt Stewart, due to bad weather, flew within feet of a hotel before making an emergency landing in which everyone survived. He didn’t report the incident at the time, was later found guilty of negligence, and the following year sadly committed suicide.


We must encourage an environment where people are not afraid to INTERNALLY REPORT a failure, whether catastrophic or with minor consequences; all can be learnt from.

Whether something succeeded or failed, this reflection is useless unless we understand why.

What was different about the people or groups it didn’t work out for? Maybe it wasn’t appropriate to their needs. What was different about those who experienced the best outcomes? Maybe the program was only successful for certain people. We must DIG DEEPER into those who succeeded and those who didn’t. To cross reference like this requires appropriate data collection processes in place from the beginning.

Being honest about shortcomings engenders trust.

Street League have attracted significant attention since publishing their impact dashboard, including attracting more funding. Engineers Without Borders haven’t lost a single funder in the ten years of publishing their Failure Report. We must be brave enough to EXTERNALLY REPORT the things that didn’t quite work out, and funders need to appreciate these honest conversations.


Acknowledge, Internally Report, Dig deeper, Externally report













For more information about ‘The F Word’ please visit www.thefailureword.com.