The Value of Sharing Mistakes

Association leaders can learn plenty from a series of public talks about on-the-job failures. But some ways of opening up about mistakes are better than others.

Own your mistakes. Every leader gets told to do that. But would you be willing to own them onstage in front of strangers? How about in front of your members?

The latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review reports on a recent trend of TED Talk- and Ignite-style events in which entrepreneurs share their shortcomings and failures. The events—I’ll call them “Foulup Nights” here, but the real name is saltier—launched in Mexico City in 2012 and have since taken place in more than 100 cities, according to the founders. The events are “a chance to reflect on bad decisions, missed opportunities, episodes of poor execution, and pivots that never paid off,” Greg Beato writes. “Unlike TED, a conference series that focuses on ‘ideas worth spreading,’ [Foulup] Nights showcases ideas worth shedding.”

There’s a very strong norm against admitting that a grant you received, or a service you designed, failed.

As Beato points out, this sort of candor isn’t necessarily hard to come by in the corporate or entrepreneurial world, where the potential to go public cultivates at least some openness and innovation (which inevitably means screwing up sometimes) is a badge of honor. But in nonprofitdom, where there’s stern scrutiny of proper stewardship of funds, there’s less enthusiasm. Beato quotes University of California, Berkeley, professor Jane Wei-Skillern, who says, “there’s a very strong norm against admitting that a grant you received, or a service you designed, failed. That’s the nail in the coffin for the next round of funding.”

That can be just as true in associations, where an executive might catch heat if member benefit doesn’t catch on, a product doesn’t sell, a sponsorship falls through, or the meeting content mix falls off plumb. But it can be difficult to extract candor about those things from association executives. Those with long memories may recall that Associations Now once ran a regular feature titled “Lessons From Failure.” A handful of leaders shared their stories about the massive tradeshow that went over like a lead balloon, an affinity program that went bust, a student program that didn’t attract many students.

It was a smart idea, but it didn’t last, largely because it was difficult to get leaders to put their names on a tactical miscue.

So I don’t have a lot of faith that a Foulup Nights-style event would get a lot of traction in the association community. But I think there are a few useful lessons from the concept that are worth considering should such an event ever come to pass:

  1. Make it collective. In a tough situation, there’s safety in numbers. One of the virtues of Foulup Nights is that it builds in the feeling that lots of people have been through a bad business move and have lived to tell the tale. Whether you’re getting up on stage yourself or encouraging leaders in you industry to do the same, having a group experience can make mistakes feel less like career-ending crises and more like opportunities to learn and retool.
  2. Make it upbeat. As Katie Bascuas recently reported, there’s research to support the idea that failures are motivational—people tend to treat them as learning experiences, and move on to the next goal. So a public discussion of failures needn’t be a wake. The power of the “Lessons From Failure” concept wasn’t the failure but the lesson, and that’s the peg on which you can hang your association’s story.
  3. No humblebragging. I’ve done my share of interviews where I’ve encouraged a leader to share a story about a mistake, only to receive an answer along the lines of, “We were expecting a super-awesome success and it turned out to be only awesome!” (Framing mistakes more politely as “challenges” doesn’t change the responses much—everybody knows what’s being talked about here.) There are lessons to learn from mistakes, but mistakes aren’t successes under a different name—they’re genuine miscues. If you want your story to be taken seriously, be sincere about what the mistake actually was.

How do you own up to failures in your organization, and draw lessons from them? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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