EWB in 2016


A Bad Harvest for Failing

By Boris Martin, CEO

I’m sitting in front of a blank page. It’s November 2015. It’s Failure Report writing time.

On the one hand, I’m excited to write a Failure Report again this year; but on the other, something is bugging me about it.

I’m excited to write it because I’m proud of the culture that this report represents: a culture of learning and bold commitment to ideals that are hard to achieve. I recall how the very first edition of the report was launched in 2008 by our people, from the grassroots. Nick Jiminez, Owen Scott, Jean-François Soubliere and a few others had decided that if we were to challenge the aid sector, we ought to role model learning, intentional experimenting, and an openness to admit what isn’t working. I’m proud that the Failure Report achieved just that, and earned us a global reputation that we deserve.

Something is bugging me about writing this report though. It’s that I’m racking my brain ONLY NOW to decide what I’ll be writing about. It doesn’t feel genuine. Plus, my incentives aren’t really about me experimenting and learning:

  • I’m the CEO – it will send a strong message internally that I write one.
  • People know Engineers Without Borders for our Failure Report. It makes us look good to have one, and it makes us look progressive that the CEO writes a failure.

To be completely honest, 2015 wasn’t a year of experimentation for me. It was a high pace and high stakes process of adopting a new role. I did learn a whole lot of new skills. I did try and fail and try and fail and try and succeeded—in small ways, like picking up the phone, asking genuinely for a donation. I remember asking Paul Cescon, our Partnerships Manager, to be in the room with me as I made calls, so he would give me direct feedback. For a new CEO, that felt vulnerable and awkward, and yet it helped me improve so much faster.

As a team, we did try new things as well. We launched an Ambassador Circle for stewarding relationships with some of our strongest financial supporters. We started supporting new ventures, like Lisha Bora. We launched a sector-wide Engineering Change Lab in partnership with Engineers Canada. We did budget and plan for contingency, for a “transition time” so it allowed us to find our new normal during a CEO transition. Yet at the same time, we didn’t really set things up as experiments. We tried one option for all attempts, and overall, in fact, I find that we’ve been very successful.

I’m racking my brain only now, writing a failure report not entirely for the right reasons – and THAT is the failure. It’s a massive one. How can I pretend that I take a learning and experimentation approach to my work if I don’t setup any experiments? How can I intentionally fail if I only start thinking about failure a few weeks before the publication of the Failure Report?

I believe that thus far, our Failure Report and the process behind it is missing half of the learning equation: the set up and planning part of an intentional, experimental approach to delivering results. Only when we also have that piece in place will we start truly seeing the behaviors of a learning organisation. It is necessary that we set up next year’s Failure entry in January, by clarifying the hypotheses I want to test during our year planning cycle – instead of thinking of them retrospectively at Failure reporting time, in November.

So here is my commitment going forward: I will role model laying out hypotheses for the strategic choices I make.  Look:

  • IF I act early and set up my work as a series of experiments,
  • THEN I will be able to intentionally set the level of risk I take, and the number of ideas I test. This will lead to greater results,
  • BECAUSE – I will be better able to capture and share what doesn’t work and what I’ve learned from it, and with multiple ideas for each challenge, I will be more likely to succeed.

How is that for a first hypothesis?

I invite you to do the same. Let’s see if it pays off in 2016.

Welcome to Failing 2.0

RonanOA Bad Harvest for Failing
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  • David Boroto - January 20, 2016 reply

    This is a very interesting failure to report – a failure to plan. Thanks for calling out the need to be methodical about failure. It would great to see a follow up next year showing what your plans were for 2016, what experiments you’ve set up for yourself and how they turn out. And not even just Boris. It would be great to get a few EWBers share the goals they’ve set out for themselves now in January and how they turn out by the time September rolls around.

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