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15 Oct '12

When a great idea didn't work: dealing with failure

Posted by T.J. Addington in failure

There is a saying, If you always do what you always did you always get what you always got. Leaders and teams know that innovation is key to staying sharp and working toward greater effectiveness.


Of course it is not blind innovation for innovation sake. We take calculated risks in ministry after thinking through the unintended consequences and trying to minimize our "dumb tax" by talking to others who may have tried what we are thinking of doing. But sometimes our best intentions fail - sometimes miserably.

How can we best handle great intentions that went very wrong? Dealing with the aftermath is important because it will either promote or prevent future innovation or risk taking.

Consider these suggestions:

1. Pull the plug if your gut says it is not going to work
A great "new idea" will probably be taking resources, either people or financial. Once you come to the conclusion that it is not going to work, don't continue to throw good money after bad. Minimize your losses and shut it down. Sometimes that takes a bit of courage, especially for those who sold the idea and desperately want it to work. Leaders may need to step in and make the call. 

2. Conduct an autopsy without blame
When something goes south, it is important to conduct an autopsy to see what lessons can be learned. How one does it is critical. If you kill the innovator you will also kill future innovation. If you conduct an autopsy without blame everyone learns but you don't create an ethos of fear. As you evaluate what went wrong, do not minimize the lessons that need to be learned. Failure is great soil for growth.

3. Be transparent
Our tendency is to "protect ourselves" when something we have tried fails. But there are stakeholders whether they be donors, participants, congregations or whoever. Minimizing or spinning the situation will come back and bite you. Be transparent with those you need to be transparent with, even if you take a few "licks" for it. Honesty is the best policy and good people will generally give other good people the leeway they need.

4. Ask whether the idea was a bad idea or whether the failure was in the execution.
Often the idea was a good idea but the process, execution, roll out or staffing were the key factors in the failure. If the problem was in the execution, consider how you can solve that issue before you try again.

5. Create a culture where failure is OK
Too many ministries are so failure adverse, or fearful (because failure is seen as a negative) that they don't try new ideas. If you are going to be most effective you will need to take measured risks. You will fail from time to time. That means you are willing to take a risk for the sake of ministry effectiveness. 

Failure is not a bad thing - it can actually point you in the right direction as you learn from the experience. The key is learning from it, and handling the aftermath with wisdom and transparency. After all, sometimes you have to throw some stuff at the wall and see "what sticks."