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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Learning From Failure 

August 21, 2014 — By Sara Davis

A version of this post appeared earlier this summer at GMNsight, the professional journal of the Grants Managers Network -Ed.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or so our neighbors on Sand Hill Road here in the heart of Silicon Valley will tell you. They wear failure like a badge of honor, because it shows they were brave enough to take real risks. True to our roots, The Hewlett Foundation has long embraced failure, too. A perfect grantmaking record would be a sign that we’re not taking the risks that are necessary to accomplish our goals. So, we welcome failure. Not for itself, but for what it can teach us about our work, and how we can do it better.

That kind of growth requires real candor, introspection, and honesty. And there’s risk in that, too—exposing ourselves to criticism, pointing out our own errors in judgment, taking the chance that we might not like what we find. We don’t often think of it this way, but honesty is a risky virtue, maybe the riskiest. It’s one that can push us out to the fringe—of what’s comfortable for us and acceptable for our organizations. Real honesty about our failures takes real bravery. But it’s worth the risk.

In 2012 our Grants Management department was a brand new team—completely reorganized with me as the leader of a new staff working in newly defined roles within the Foundation. Our first priority was to develop trust and cooperation with the Foundation’s program staff. We were an unknown quantity, so it was important to build credibility. We had to prove ourselves as valuable assets to help the Foundation accomplish its goals.

We were inspired to demonstrate to our colleagues how helpful we could be by solving a nagging problem—longstanding confusion over the precise due date for the Foundation’s grantee reporting. The Foundation has two due dates for these reports: a defined due date and a grace period after that date (an additional 30 or 60 days). This grace period creates consistent confusion about the real due date, and when a report is truly late. Staff and grantees can (and do) point to either date as the “correct” one. Our team identified fixing this as a worthwhile and low-risk challenge, a relatively simple way we could bring more clarity and efficiency to the reporting process. Low hanging fruit, so to speak. We thought clarifying the reporting date question would be an easy project to lead and implement. We were wrong.

Our initial conversations with program staff quickly showed that there were strong opinions about what to do. Staff differed widely in their opinions on how to improve the process—including a sizable contingent who felt the process was fine just the way it was. We learned from staff with international portfolios that the grace period was important for foreign organizations to manage document translations, exchange rate accounting, and the timing required for expenditure responsibility reporting. We learned from program staff how the grace period had been used to maintain goodwill and collaboration in their relationships. Other staff were frustrated with the convoluted dichotomy of a “real” due date and a “sort of” due date. They had a hard time explaining it to their grantees and didn’t fully understand it themselves. They wanted to eliminate the grace period and have just one clear and final due date.

Taken off guard by these unexpectedly strong opinions, my team had a hard decision to make. A project we thought would win us support turned out to put us right in the center of controversy and differing opinions. Ultimately, we left the reporting dates the way they were, because we decided the risk of confronting strong opinions wasn’t worth the potential damage to the relationships we were just starting to form.

 

Learning from Failure: What Matters

Grant Processes Matter

We learned a lot through this process; perhaps most importantly, that grant processes matter. They’re not meaningless and they are not insignificant. The reporting date might seem like procedural minutiae, but in trying to change this one little thing, we saw clearly how big a deal grant practices really are. Grant processes have meaning because of the people who are impacted by them and because of what they mean for relationships—among our own staff and with our grantees.

In all of our conversations with program staff, there was a key learning: the details of grant processes affect real people and create real impacts. Changing the process wasn’t just a minor internal tweak; it would impact organizations and people who had reasonable attachments to current state. Conversely, keeping the process the same was a choice to maintain existing confusion. Our idea of a “minor” change had not factored in the real impacts of our practice. This understanding is a reminder that grant processes and systems can help or hinder our relationships, and ultimately support or obstruct the important goals we all are trying to achieve together.

Clarity about Decision-Making Matters

We also learned that when you are embarking on a project that will include one or more decisions, it’s good to get clear about how these decisions will be made in advance. Without much thinking, we had started this project with a naïve sense that there would easily be consensus for making this change. When we met with differing opinions, we had no plan B. As everyone didn’t agree immediately and we had not thought through how to handle the decision from there, we stalled and the project stalled. In retrospect we see clearly that reliance on total consensus was not a viable strategy for making decisions.

There were some good reasons we had hoped for consensus. As a brand new team we were trying hard to develop trust and cooperation with program staff. In retrospect, we had put “being liked” above making good decisions. We had put “being liked” above critical thinking. It was only a matter of time before this orientation would reveal itself to be a flawed construct.

This experience forced our team to have a real conversation about how we should handle diverse opinions and how to make hard decisions and facilitate collaboration in the face of divergent viewpoints. It helped us to talk about our roles more explicitly and understand how interconnected we were within the Foundation and with our grant recipients. We discovered that putting more emphasis on relationships than on making hard choices about improving systems, even in the face of (justifiable) resistance, was the wrong way to go.

We also learned the importance of thinking broadly as part of effective decision making. We had made the mistake of presenting only two options: keep the grace period or get rid of it. This created a rigid duality that led to a sense of win-lose and an outcome that would mean a lot of people being unhappy with the results, regardless of the outcome. Had we been more conscious of framing the question more broadly at the beginning, we may have landed on a richer list of possible outcomes. Having several options would have made it harder to think in terms of winners and losers, provided some space for creative solutions, and opened opportunities for constructive compromise. It also would have had the added benefit of positioning our team as creative problem solvers and facilitators of nuanced conversations.

Culture Matters

It is also clear that working within an environment that encourages learning from failure made this much easier. Organizational cultures can encourage or discourage honesty and candid exploration. Although we may have arrived at the same conclusions on our own, the Foundation’s culture helped us do so more intentionally.  

My team shared this project last fall at the Foundation’s annual discussion about failure. At this session, each program or department shares their experiences of a failed strategy, grant, or project with the entire staff. We then gather in small groups to hash out the lessons learned. Everyone contributes ideas about how similar failures might be avoided in the future and draws larger conclusions we can apply to all of our grantmaking. As a presenter at the session, my team received a structured and visible opportunity to think about our work, to learn about our blind spots, and to benefit from the wisdom of our colleagues.  

 

Learning to Love Failure

Perhaps the most important learning for us has been that failure is really not so bad. This experience sparked important conversations about process and relationships, and it strengthened my team’s understanding of each other and the people we work with. It gave us a better sense of the real value of our department, and the nature of our challenge as grants managers. It made us think, analyze, and communicate with each other more than we would have otherwise. Failure might be challenging, and being honest about the reasons for it risky, but we’re not scared of embracing it. There’s too much to be gained.