Turning Lessons 'Listed' Into Lessons 'Learned'

Television shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance appeal as much for the excruciatingly embarrassing moments as for the surprising talent they reveal. Given our fascination with failure, it is also not surprising that bloopers shows and web compilations of major "fails" generate wide viewership. While we don't normally sing rock ballads off-key or perform an Argentine tango on stage, those of us in philanthropy have plenty of experience with times when our best efforts turn into less-than-graceful missteps. Maybe the cameras weren't rolling, but perhaps a bit of public exposure helps ensure we walk away from these awkward moments much the wiser for it.

This year for the first time, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' Learning Conference included a Fail Fest to celebrate mistakes in philanthropy and reinforce a culture of learning and continuous improvement in the GEO community. Six brave souls told stories of meetings gone awry, relationships bungled and leadership opportunities squandered. As the speakers shared their experiences, I watched those in the audience cringe with the recognition that they'd been there too.

Clearly failure is a universal experience. Yet the stories illustrated that how a person responds to failure says much more about him or her than the failure itself. Many of us get stuck at step one: recognizing that something could have gone better. Suzanne Walsh, a GEO board member and senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, dubs these "lessons listed" rather than "lessons learned." In studiously listing lessons that emerge in the course of work, we get only part of the way there. How do we take that next step? How do we put what we have learned into action?

The Spark

Any improvement process must begin with individual people committing to learn. Yet all too rare are those who do the intentional work of first admitting to and then learning from mistakes in order to make improvements over time.

As GEO prepared for the Fail Fest, we sought candid, honest folks who are well respected in their own organizations and in the community. Most importantly, we looked for people who are humble and introspective enough to have generated new insights from situations that didn't go as planned.

Moving from being a "lister" to a "learner" often involves asking uncomfortable questions, having tough conversations and internalizing hard conclusions. From the speakers' stories, it was clear these people take personal responsibility for the process of confronting and learning from failure. Even in circumstances where the culture could be described as hostile to failure, these folks had the inner courage to name the failure and commit to learning from it.

The Amplifier: Culture

Although learning necessarily starts with people, the most important differentiator enabling organizations to make productive changes over time is the presence of a culture that supports growth rather than stagnation. During the conference, several people reference Peter Drucker's famous quote, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." If you believe this is true, as I do, why is it that so much more time and energy is spent crafting strategy than in nurturing a productive culture? Maybe we are slow to recognize that creating a culture conducive to growth and learning requires intentionally building trusting relationships and carving out time for reflection.

While individuals in our organizations may be doing good work, the best grantmakers have taken the next step of collectively committing to doing good work, better. They invite feedback from new voices and engage grantees as co-creators in the learning process. These organizations are led by people who, through every action, big and small, model the behaviors themselves and reinforce cultural norms.

If you're not in a leadership role at your organization, don't lose heart. Andrew Zolli, author of Resilience and a keynote speaker at The Learning Conference, encouraged mid-level folks to serve as translational leaders. Translational leaders are the bridges and spanners of an organization, a vital role if an organization is to evolve successfully.

A Game Changer: Sharing Learning

After an organization successfully advances from "listing" to "learning," there is one additional step: sharing. At a previous GEO Learning Conference, keynote speaker Eugene Kim charged philanthropy to "aggressively share your knowledge." At the conference this year, The Community Foundation serving Boulder County gave the example of how it wasn't satisfied that it would reach a broad group of citizens by simply sharing its community trends report online. Instead the foundation distributed its report in the form of a magazine in the community, including through mediums such as dentist offices and realtors.

Peter Long, President and CEO of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, believes philanthropy should operate as if knowledge is open source. He has advocated that established grantmakers share all of the research, analysis and thinking behind program choices in an accessible and transparent way so that other donors can quickly get up to speed and make their own choices about how best to invest.

Learning in philanthropy, after all, is an iterative and, hopefully, two-way process. The more we share and engage with one another around what we're learning, the more we are able to collectively progress.

If you're wondering how to apply these principles to your own work, here are a few simple suggestions for ensuring you're learning and not just listing:
  • Model for your grantees what it is like to admit failure and learn from it.
  • Forgive yourselves and forgive grantees when things don't go as planned.
  • Think about the key insights you've developed in your work over time. Who else might benefit from understanding those insights?
  • List out the reasons you're not ready to ask a pointed question or suggest a change in practice (i.e. "I'm too new," "Later might be a better time," "We've been doing it this way for a while.") Then consider if they are legitimate reasons or excuses.
  • Consider how you might serve as a translational leader by re-interpreting information for different groups who might benefit from it.
  • Most importantly, when you commit to learning, commit to change as well.