By Mimi Kravetz
Failure is key to growth. Very few of us have had significant growth without it, though it is hard to see the upside of failure when it is happening.
I learned to grow through failure in an experience I had early in my career when I took a shot at being a social entrepreneur. Frustrated at the extreme tension between the Jewish and Arab/Muslim communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, I worked with a Palestinian American friend to develop a camp program for high school students from these communities. We put in a lot of work on what felt was a real opportunity to create positive change.
And we might have, if we’d raised a cent or attracted more than two campers.
I missed considering the value proposition for the teenagers to participate, and I overestimated the readiness of the communities to prioritize the dialogue with each other over their individual communities’ needs.
I was disappointed with the result and with myself. But, as I reflected, I realized that there was much to learn from this experience including that the end customer needs to be truly ready for an innovation, and that participation in something new requires serious thinking about how to gain buy-in. I also lacked some critical leadership skills in fundraising, budgeting and marketing that I would need if I someday wanted to lead an organization that I cared about. My essay probing the depths of my failure to launch Peace Generation Youth Camp earned me a spot at Harvard Business School and sent me on a path that led to working at Google.
Now, as the chief talent officer at Hillel International, my team and I take many ambitious risks, and, in some cases, we fail. Most of us know that organizations can benefit from failures if they put in the effort to learn from them. Some even want to implement cultures where we take risks and celebrate failure. Yet most people and organizations remain afraid to fail and admit failure. How can we fail successfully? And what is keeping Jewish nonprofits from getting the full benefits of failure? I’ve seen there are four steps to failing successfully.
The first thing organizations can do is to acknowledge failure and absorb it. Hillel International’s Springboard Fellowship, designed to attract talented young professionals who can impact students on campus, transform our organization and become a talent pipeline in the Jewish community, has been a HUGE success overall. With 74 fellows on campus this year (and 45 positions being filled soon!), it is the largest early-career fellowship in the Jewish world. But when we launched a small social media track as part of the first cohort in 2016, we failed.
Excited to bring this specialty area and unique group of talent to our campuses, I again overestimated readiness of a community to handle an innovation, this time local Hillels that hadn’t employed social media professionals before. Also, we on the Talent team neglected to put in place everything that was needed for the ultimate success of something brand new like this to work. This includes building the right types of training, measurement systems, supervision or established career paths that would have ensured this specialty area could be well supported on an ongoing basis. While the fellows in the track found success working with their individual Hillels and students, and many of them have stayed on to grow professionally in Jewish life (including by creating their own jobs and paths) – a primary Springboard goal, we failed by launching this track before the organization was ready, and we failed by not providing the local Hillels with the full set resources they deserved to achieve all of the program’s goals.
We saw that we didn’t have key components in place to run a successful social media track and now we’ve discontinued it. Instead we’re integrating these skills into other tracks and considering how we might get our organization and Fellowship ripe to relaunch this specialization in years to come.
The most important thing we can do for future cohorts of fellows and for our central team is to celebrate that we tried something new and exciting, and we failed. By doing this, we support local fellow experimentation and demonstrate that we’ll continue to iterate on the Fellowship based on learnings and feedback. After all, a premise of the Springboard Fellowship is to innovate and that involves risk taking and a willingness to try things that might not work.
Admitting to failure will only get you so far. The next step is to analyze our failure. When I worked at Google, we often did what we called a “blameless post-mortem” after completing a project. We looked at the many contributions to a problem, without naming or pointing fingers at people. We would make a list of what went well and what didn’t and consider what we could do different next time. This detailed examination led to learning and ultimately change.
Another lesson I learned from my time at Google is to celebrate failure. After Google Wave failed to thrive, the engineers who worked on it weren’t fired – they were promoted! The company revels in taking big risks and thinking outside the box, even when that approach fails. In the nonprofit space, it’s hard to celebrate in the same way when you’re grant funded and fear the funding might go away. But I suggest that organizations and funders alike do whatever we can to celebrate failure and build partnerships where we can experiment, learn and grow together. The Springboard Fellowship has benefited from these types of honest relationships with our funders.
The final step is finding the courage to get back out there and try again with renewed energy and insight, and the knowledge that we can do better. Psychologists call this “positive illusions of control.” This means that we’ll try many different things, with the understanding that some will fail but some others will succeed, as long as we keep believing, learning, iterating and trying again. This, in turn, perpetuates hope and ultimately success.
We have to reclaim the word “failure” as giving us the power to achieve the kind of growth we all want in ourselves and our organizations. We need to figure out the right partnerships, language, places, and processes for failing successfully. By identifying where we have gone wrong, learning from our experience, celebrating what we have gained through failure and trying again, we can achieve amazing growth.
Mimi Kravetz, Hillel International’s chief talent officer, was formerly an executive in employment branding at Google. This article is the first in a series on failure written by Hillel professionals who participated in her course at Hillel International Global Assembly on “moonshot thinking,” Google’s methodology for radical innovation which relies on risk taking and celebrating failure to achieve growth.