Friday, June 28, 2013

Failure isn't a four letter word

When we fall short of reaching our goals we tend to quietly sweep it under the rug and move on; no one shouts from the rooftops about how they missed the mark, which is both surprising, and not.

It’s not surprising because no one likes admitting when things don’t go according to plan, especially when there are expectations associated with the outcomes: donor, beneficiary, volunteer, and otherwise.

It is surprising however, in light of the talk about “professionalizing” the disaster response sector. In working for a smaller disaster-response non-profit I was forced to do more with less, as a result, I needed to know a little about a lot. Because I’m kind of a dork, I started reading management books to help broaden my horizons and understanding around non-profit type things, books like: ‘the 5 dysfunctions of a team’, and ‘the 4 secrets every great manager should know’, etc… And while there were a lot of commonalities, the one thing that was repeatedly said was: don’t be afraid to fail, and failure is the greatest teacher.

If that’s true, why is it that the business world is embracing failure and being rewarded for it through innovation and massive profits, while we in disaster response manage to avoid the subject entirely and have to fight for dollars? If we’re serious about “professionalizing” what we do, I believe open and honest conversations about where gaps persist are needed so that planning can take place, benchmarks can be set, and communication can be directed to ensure accountability in our evolution as a sector of practitioners.

We push for transparency around: financial stewardship, the communication of program impacts, our role within community response and recovery, etc...However, I’ve yet to read an article by an organization about a time where they didn’t accomplish what they set out to do. Is that due to a fear that if we tell funders that we came up short that we won’t get grants renewed and funding will dry up? Is it complacency? Is it a lack of definition around roles and responsibilities? Or is it that we’re just not failing? Of course I don’t want our Search and Rescue personnel to fail, nor do I want to prolong a communities recovery so that we can "figure things out", but if we continually come to the same conclusions as to the challenges and gaps faced when conducting response and recovery operations, why aren’t we as a sector jumping on the failure bandwagon by trying new things and seeing what works?

Recognizing the need for an open dialogue/forum on the subject of failure, Engineers without Boarders began the site: A place where stories of magnificent flops can be shared and what was learned as a result. After watching the Occupy Sandy debrief trailer the questions of why we aren’t embracing failure as a sector keep coming up in my head.

So maybe we don't need to shout it from the rooftops, but how about we submit 3 things we could've done better as response transitions to recovery in Moore, OK and the surrounding communities. Submit them to NVOAD to begin a base of institutional response knowledge, put them into a hat, pull them out, and talk about them so that we can figure out ways to ensure that the next time we respond that the same challenges don't persist. 

Honesty is the best policy and failure is the best teacher...if we can't be honest with each other enough to admit where we can be better, how are we going to learn from our mistakes in an effort to avoid making them again in the future?

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