Tag Archives: toronto

Learning to Fail Forward: the critical ingredient for innovation


On July 9 a couple hundred people gathered to explore a topic that carries a pretty hefty cultural stigma. It’s a subject we think about daily. We obsess, analyze and agonize over it. We are quick to blame politicians and public business leaders for it. We fear it. We deny it. We avoid it.

Ashley Good decided to confront it. Several years ago Ashley founded Fail Forward with the vision to talk, celebrate and learn from failure. She perceived a gap in organizational learning, particularly in the international development sector. This spurred her to promote the practice of “intelligent failure,” which Ashley defines as:

1. Learning, maximized and accelerated through the act of trial, error and communicating stories

2. Innovation, made possible by accepting a certain risk of failure inherent in new ideas and approaches

The inaugural Fail Forward conference held in July 2014 opened the dialogue for how professionals can learn to fail intelligently. Participants were diverse, involving large auditing firms, niche consultancies, growing businesses and community organizations. As a volunteer, I observed a day full of play, laughter, and storytelling. Stories from attendees revealed people’s sensitivity to failure, and how failure is strongly shaped by our own perceptions. There was also widespread recognition that innovation and failure are closely linked.


Throughout the workshops, speeches and serendipitous conversations, I learned new methodologies and met some of the leading thinkers in intelligent failure:

Fail Forward Toolkit

Your one-stop shop on how to fail fast and fail smart. Tools and frameworks include IDEO Design Thinking, Purpose Capital on when to quit, pivot or persist, an Innovation and Risk Appetite Assessment, the list goes on…

Emergent Learning Tables
An awesome tool for learning is the Emergent Learning Table (ELT). ELTs are best used to tackle a situation that has no easy or obvious solution and requires more than one team to take action independently.

Applying collective learning to a large organization can be difficult. ELTs provide the structure and space to promote dialogue, advocacy and build feedback loops into implementation to improve outcomes. Read more here. I found this tool particularly exciting as it connects well to Michael Quinn Patton’s work on developmental evaluation. During the conference Jillaine Smith of 4Q Partners commented, “people are working towards the same goal from different angles – either from a learning perspective like 4Q or evaluative perspective like developmental evaluation.”


There’s no learning without fun.  Ashley Good and Fail Forward participant get silly. c/o Billy Lee, Belight

Business Schools and Failure

Mike Shaner, a business professor at St. Louis University, asked participants to complete a Performance Failure Appraisal (found on page 15 in the Fail Forward toolkit). He also shared an awesome compendium of readings on leadership and failure (click the course readings button)

Thought Leaders Galore

Dr. Brian Goldman was the opening keynote and set the stage for failure in the context of hospitals. It was both a sobering and awe-inspiring speech. Dr. Goldman helped participants see that no one feels failure stronger than those responsible for human life. Another Doctor, Dr. Mandy Wintink spoke about neuroscience and our physiological reaction to failure. More here!

A conference partner, Open Road Alliance is filling an unmet need in the world of philanthropy. Many projects that secure funding face unforeseen exogenous threats which jeopardize the project’s ability to continue operating. Enter Open Road Alliance, who provides catalytic capital to cash-strapped high impact projects. Their work was recently featured in SSIR as Funding the Unforeseen. These thought leaders are just a sample of the many in attendance.

What’s Next?

I hope this post has illuminated some of the rich learning opportunities available in intelligent failure. Most of these tools and methods are more fun to explore in a group. That’s why the Fail Forward team is starting a Toronto Meetup to kickstart a community of “failers.” Don’t live in Toronto? Be a part of a Fail Forward organizing team in cities across Ontario. Keep up to speed on Fail Forward news and sign up for their newsletter.

c/o Belighted

Fail Forward Team. c/o Billy Lee, Belighted

Special thanks to Ashley Good, Anna Smith and the other members of the organizing team for Fail Forward 2014. Congratulations to the partners who were willing to sponsor a conference with the word failure in it!


A New (& Innovative) Beginning

Although my departure from Ethiopia was filled with bittersweet farewells, I have new opportunities emerging on the Canadian horizon. I recently signed a nine-month contract with Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based out of Toronto. SiG is a nimble nonprofit collaborating between four partners to actively cultivate social innovation in Canada.


courtesy of brandeewine

My journey with SiG started in May. A month passed and I still can’t shake the jittery excitable rush I feel every morning. It’s a complete privilege to be able to work directly in social innovation. In essence, social innovation enables change to our current systems with the purpose of improving human welfare. Social innovators oppose, test and attempt to solve society’s intractable problems like homelessness, addiction, and vulnerable populations. It’s quite the daunting task but what better way to challenge yourself?

New to social innovation? Watch this video
Want to read my first blog for SiG? Read it here

Big Men

Big Men Documentary

Photo courtesy of http://bigmenthemovie.com/

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Toronto’s hot docs, showcasing some of the latest and greatest in documentary filmmaking.

I saw the premier of Big Men, which tracks several actors through the exploration and exploitation of oil in Ghana. Private US investors, Kosmos Energy, the Ghanaian Government, militant insurgencies in Nigeria, and Exxon Mobil each play a part in the scramble for oil. As you watch the disparate groups clamour to get a piece of the pie, the film continually challenges the audience to think critically about the role of greed within our society.

Following the screening, director Rachel Boynton did some Q&A with the audience. She had lived and breathed Big Men for the past six years. One of her ideas stayed with me long after the session…

The film engages two types of people:
People who are desperate for the things they need (Ghanaian citizens) and
People who are driven by ambition (Western investors)
Although they may act in very different ways, their behavior is driven by a fervent need to be “Big Men,” as in powerful and wealthy individuals.

What I like most about this film is that it does not tell a simple story of good and evil. Rather, it entwines greed, poverty, politics and culture to help us discern the global pattern that we are weaving and inevitably responsible for.

A side note about Resilient Reality blog: The hiatus was due to some East African travels and Vancouver visitations. I’ve now relocated to Toronto but will continue to blog about my experiences in Ethiopia, potentially Tanzania and Kenya, as well as some Toronto tidbits. The frequency of posts will pick up!