Opening Remarks at Jewish Community’s First Fail Forward Conference

When we invite people to an event they have something to say and contribute, and often it’s actually more important than anything we can present.

by David Bryfman

Last week was a very exciting week in the Bryfman household. Baby Abby took her first steps. Up, down, fall, one step, two steps, eventually three in a row, stand up, fall down, take a few more steps. Abby also touched the hot radiator last week – once. (Yes I know we should have radiator covers – they’re on back order) The point for here though, is that she touched it only once.

You see when I watch Abby, its pretty obvious that she is continually learning from her mistakes. In fact most of the time I wouldn’t even call them mistakes, its basically test, trial, fault and re-try. And like all of us we grow and develop throughout childhood by learning through the challenges that we undertake.

And then something happens. At a certain point in our lives, these mistakes are no longer tolerated. People judge us and critique our performances even though they will spout off rhetoric like – “we all learn from our experiences.”

But today, this conference is different. It’s not about a technical mistake that I may have made. It’s not about falling down or failing to order enough food for an event, or leaving out a budget line in a report. These are all mistakes – things we do and quickly learn not to repeat.

Today is about failure. Today is about when you undoubtedly, objectively, screwed something up. When you didn’t reach your goals because you assumed too much or too little – when no matter how you spin it – it was a royal f up – that f stands for failure.

So when thinking about a fail forward moment to share from my own experience, it was a tossup between the time I electrocuted the entire youth population of a small Jewish community (everyone is fine!) or a disastrous Jewish Futures Conference in Denver, 2011.

For today I’m sticking with Denver. We planned this Jewish Futures Conference to perfection; every single minute was accounted for. The program looked great, the sponsors were all signed and secured. It was technically going to be a flawless conference. But in the end it was just… well, boring. Some of the speakers missed the mark, some went on too long. We assumed that every sponsor needed to speak, so there were a whole lot of infomercials, no real breaks – we tried to jam as much in as possible and forgot one important thing – that the audience is smart.

That was our failure – not acknowledging that when we invite people to an event they have something to say and contribute, and often it’s actually more important than anything we can present.

So immediately after our failed conference we sent out a mass distribution email – telling the world how badly we screwed it up and that we were sorry, and frustrated, mainly with ourselves.

From there we developed the three core principles for any Jewish Futures gathering. Introduce new ideas; fill the room with an eclectic mix of people; and inspire new solutions to a given problem.

The Failing Forward Conference is about admitting failure, learning from it, and then as Ashley Good, from an organization called “Admitting Failure” teaches us – creating an environment that encourages failing forward at all levels, in order to help organizations take the risks necessary to become the creative, innovative places they aspire to be.
On November 18th, 120 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders, from across the communal spectrum, joined together to share their failures and learn how to turn them into triumphs. This Jewish Futures Conference was presented by The Jewish Education Project, a beneficiary of UJA Federation-NY, with the support of Upstart, and sponsored in part by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Let’s not pretend that this was an easy topic to grapple with or that it resonated with every member of the audience. Talking about personal failure, as opposed to simply recognizing our technical errors, is visceral. In our experience (as re-iterated by Ashley Good) it is only at this point of vulnerability and candor that the depth of conversation allows for us to confront our short comings and be truly open to learning from our failures.

Some questions to leave you with…

  1. When was the last time that you truly failed at something in your professional life?
  2. Who in your organization did you share this failure with, or were you inhibited from sharing this in your work environment?
  3. If your work fostered an environment that encouraged you to speak openly about your failures (as well as your successes) what else would you, and your organization, be able to accomplish?

For more information about the Jewish Futures Fail Forward Conference and to possibly contribute your own Fail Forward story check out http://jewishfutures.wordpress.com/category/fail-forward/

David Bryfman i Chief Learning Officer at The Jewish Education Project.