Want to Thrive During the Pandemic? Learn How to Fail Smart

By Rob France

The American college campus is one of the most unstable contexts for Jewish programming during this pandemic. Each campus is making different choices, and even major decisions are having to be changed at short notice. Campus professionals are having a tough time – and that’s even before we consider what students are going through.

Normally those of us who work on campus have an accurate sense of what will work – but this pandemic is not normal, so I wanted to share what I learned from one particular failure, because progress, especially in times like these, requires failure.

At the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, where I lead our campus team, we have been working with colleges and universities for over nine years. College campuses are the forging places of Jewish identity, and we’ve been committed to working with Hillel professionals and students to provide opportunities for learning and leadership development. That includes a year-long fellowship for Hillel senior leaders, a seminar for students in Israel, and increasingly, more local opportunities for Hillel professionals and students.

Through the pandemic, we’ve been experimenting. Some of what we have tried has worked very well, and some of what we have tried has failed abruptly. We’ve been surprised multiple times.

One example of a recent failure: a few weeks ago, when we heard that many campuses were going virtual, we announced an ambitious new online gap-year program. We knew that there would be students who prefer to wait a year, so they could return to college in-person, who would be looking for safe gap-year learning options. And we already have an in-person gap year program based in Jerusalem, so we would be building on existing expertise to attract an audience who knows the high caliber of our product.

With encouragement from professionals in the field and enthusiasm and material support from funders, we believed we were on our way to our next great pandemic success story. Students in our summer program told me all about the students they knew who had elected to take some time off. Parents and funders alike were asking if there were programs available for their children who were mulling whether or not they would return to campus. It seemed like a surefire success. But after weeks of intensive recruiting, five students applied. So we cancelled the program.

Was this a failure? On its face, yes. But with a little work, we can turn it into a “smart failure.” This hasn’t been the only failed program experiment we’ve launched this season. I’ve come to believe that failing smartly is an essential response for Hartman, the Jewish community, and the entire nonprofit world, to this pandemic.

Here are three ways to shift failure into smart failure:

Encourage Smaller Risks and Evaluate Quickly

Living in a world where nothing is certain means we all have to take more risks. By definition, that means trying out initiatives before we know whether they will work or not. It means running numerous smaller experiments, rather than perfecting any single large program.

One important aspect of experimentation and risk taking is when to decide to pull the plug. We have found that if we are committed to gathering and reviewing data and feedback early and quickly, we can also make decisions faster about their viability. The gap-year program is one example: after four weeks, we didn’t believe the program could achieve the goals we had set this year. Instead of trying even harder, we stopped before the failure became larger. Instead of pouring more staff time and effort into a direction that wasn’t yielding results, we cut our losses quickly when the resources lost were minimal and the early adopters least inconvenienced.

Shutting down initiatives that are showing early signs of failure also allows us to assign more resources into initiatives that are thriving. This practice also ensures there are sufficient resources to keep innovating – to try out an alternative way to serve a community to which we are committed.

Failure Yields Great Data

When we gathered to review the status of our new gap-year program, our leadership was able to see through the cancelled program to the valuable learning we had done. The demand for an intensive gap-year program never materialized, but the data we gathered was invaluable toward understanding what college students were looking for in this moment.

Tellingly, there was more interest from parents and educators about a program of this sort than from the actual students themselves. What we learned from students through our process was that more students than we had originally thought actually wanted to return to school. It turns out that the allure of being “in-person” matters, and students certainly preferred that alternative to staying at home. Being in community, even if it is not the idyllic community that one imagines, still matters to young people.

Of those that hadn’t returned to school, it also turned out that they were not looking for disruption from their college experience; they were looking for ways to maintain community, or to enhance their leadership development and career prospects. Most college students at home are still taking classes, though perhaps with a reduced class load that is supplemented with other opportunities. There was interest in some kind of learning program – just not at the level of intensity that we designed. These became the kernels that will shape our next offering.

Dont Hide Failure

Like almost everyone else, we tend to publicize our program successes and stay quiet about our program failures. When we realized that our gap-year program was not going to happen, my first instinct was to never speak of it again. There is a stigma to failure, especially when the stakes of being successful feel higher than ever. But we are living through a period in which we need to normalize failure, both at the institutional level and across the Jewish community.

We were able to share what we did internally, what we learned, and what we’re going to take from this experience. And by sharing it in this more public forum, we hope others will be encouraged to share their failures during this pandemic. Doing so promotes the healthy idea that smart failure is part of normal life. It also can help us learn from one another.

This pandemic has upended our sense of knowing what will and won’t work. Even those of us with many years of experience cannot rely on that experience to predict what is going to thrive right now. We are being asked to interrogate all of our previous assumptions. Some lessons and wisdom from the past can be carried forward, but much cannot.

The fastest way to discover what new directions and ideas we should pursue may be to fail smartly – to try new things, to learn as we go, and if you’re going to fail – fail early, openly, and with lessons learned. We know it is serving us well now, and we hope to carry this lesson with us into the future.

Rob France is Director of Campus Initiatives for Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He leads the vision, design and implementation of all programming for campus professionals, students, and academics.