In, On Creativity, David Bohm writes:  “From early childhood, one is taught to maintain the image of “self” or “ego” as essentially perfect. Each mistake seems to reveal that one is an inferior sort of being, who will therefore, in some way, not be fully accepted by others.  This is unfortunate, for, as has been seen, all learning involves trying something and seeing what happens.  If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything at all.”

I think we can all agree that social problems require creative solutions.  The issues that most of us deal with everyday in the non-profit sector demand that we be original, flexible, and genuine.  However, it’s very difficult to experiment with programs, even those that are evidence-based, if we don’t give ourselves permission to fail.  Foundations, donors, grantees, and evaluators, we all need permission to fail.  Don’t most of us fall short of our goals everyday?  Less coffee, more time to relax, less reactionary with the kids, pay more attention to the dog, exercise…   Even in our personal lives-even in a given day with relatively straight forward goals-it’s very difficult to achieve all that we set out to achieve.

It stands to reason then that the more ambitious our organizational goals are the more difficult it is to achieve them.  So, I propose that we give ourselves permission to not have to be all things to all people and to not have the right answers.  I believe we need to give ourselves permission to be ineffective.  With the permission to be ineffective comes great responsibility.  We have a responsibility to be accountable for our efforts to achieve our goals.  We must be clear about our assumptions, exactly who we are trying to serve, what the indicators of progress are, and (what I find the most difficult) we need to measure and respond to these indicators, and our outcomes.  That is, we must challenge our preconceptions and produce evidence of our effectiveness.  With permission to fail comes the responsibility to learn.

Later in the chapter, Bohm continues, “The key is in the state of mind of the individual.  For as long as the individual cannot learn from what he does and sees, whenever such learning requires that he go outside the framework of his basic preconceptions, then his action will ultimately be directed by some idea that does not correspond to the fact as it is.  Such action is worse than useless, and evidently cannot possibly give rise to a genuine solution of the problems of the individual and of society.”

Managing to outcomes is simply a way to learn from what we are doing and seeing.  We owe it to ourselves and to the people who’s lives we are trying to benefit to produce evidence of our effectiveness and learn from our efforts.  It seems to me that the key to learning is acceptance of our imperfections as individuals and organizations.  We won’t always be effective all of the time but if we are committed to helping people then we will do what it takes to learn from our efforts.  After all, our mistakes and failures may be every bit as important as our successes.

As a sector, it’s time that we make peace with the inevitability of falling short of our goals.   Maybe one way to do this is to call out our mistakes, our failures, our misguided preconceptions, and our lessons learned.  I think we could learn a great deal and save countless resources.

We don’t have to be effective in all of our efforts, or even in all of our programs.  However, we have to know, definitively, what’s working and what’s not and do our best to learn why.  I encourage people to post their stories (and data) about an organizational effort that didn’t work, and share why.


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