Funders and Typists: The Failure Series

[Excerpted from a post of the same name on the JFN Blog.]

by Andrés Spokoiny

For most Argentineans my generation, the name “Pitman Academies” produces a sort of nostalgic smile: a bizarre reminder of a bygone era. Pitman was a technical school that taught secretaries – the term wasn’t “assistant” back then – how to type fast and accurately in old mechanical typewriters. High School students that were receiving a “proper universal education” needed to know how to type blindly at a rate of 65 words per minute. So most high school students would join the hosts of aspiring typist and take a few weeks of typing courses at the Pitman Academies. There, students toiled on old “Remington” typewriters in which the letters had been purposefully erased from the keyboards. Instructors would shout orders above the dry crackling of hundreds of metal letters hitting the barrels of the Remingtons. The system was crude, but it worked. In a few weeks my high school classmates and I could type without looking at the keyboard or the paper at a speed of 65 to 80 words per minute. Good enough to pass the “mechanography” exam. Virtually nobody continued the course after reaching the “good enough” level, despite the claim that Pitman made, that they could teach you how to type 200 words per minute in just an extra few weeks.

… Now, what does all this have to do with philanthropy? A lot. In fact, I think it’s an excellent metaphor and inspiration for how to improve what we do as a field.

We need to be honest with ourselves, and ask “Is our grant-making ‘good enough’ or ‘great'”? How many grants are we doing on auto-pilot? Are we true masters at what we do or are we simply repeating old formulae over and over? How are we practicing and how are we learning from our practice?

In fact, the keys to excellence that “deliberate practice” suggests can be reduced to seven principles that are as useful for typists as they are for funders.

  1. The importance of failure. Yes, failure again. There’s nothing like failure to take the brain out of its comfort zone. In an airplane, a system failure automatically disengages the autopilot and forces flesh and blood pilots to focus on what’s wrong. A failure is like a truck that is blocking the neural highway during rush hour: it first stops us, but then forces our brain to look for alternative routes. Embracing failure is key to deliberate practice.
  2. Mistake-focused practice. A world class tennis player will focus not on what she does well, but on the mistakes he made in the previous match. Those of us stuck in “plateaus” don’t focus on our mistakes. When we make a typing error we simply hit backspace and keep writing, we don’t dwell on it, we don’t analyze it and we don’t practice on precisely that mistake. In philanthropy, I often wonder why our presentations, conferences and round tables focus on sharing our successes rather than analyzing our mistakes. When we do our granting, do we consciously think of the mistakes we made in previous grants or do we brush those mistakes away and move on?
  3. Intelligent evaluation. Too often we see evaluation as a threshold rather than a lever of change. We’ve learned to collect data, but we fail to act on it on a deliberate way. The funding world has made great strides towards evaluating and measuring, but now, we need to align evaluation to motivate and achieve specific goals. We need to hard-wire the evaluation into our deliberate practice system.

You can read the complete post (including the additional four principles) here.