Good Strategies Fail

The words arrived in the mail on a 2x2 post-it note. It was sent to me by The Carrack, an art gallery here in Durham. The gallery was sharing pieces from a recent post-it art show with their sustainers. Y’all know that I love post-its—I was especially thrilled to receive this one.

At Third Space Studio, our days are filled with strategic thinking as we partner with nonprofit leaders to make progress on complex challenges. We value failure. We even host an annual Fail Fest to celebrate it! “Good Strategies Fail” felt just right for me and I immediately hung the post-it on the wall in my home office/studio.

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The note speaks to me every time I walk by and I’ve come to recognize it as my new mantra.

Here’s why I think it’s an important mindset to adopt right now. We face some of the most complex challenges that our communities and planet have ever faced: global flows of information and people; accelerated technology that is reshaping work, communication, commerce, and culture; income inequality; white supremacy; climate change; and more. 
These problems and challenges require new thinking and new action. We don’t know how to fix them. We don't even know how to talk about them. But I believe we must start trying.

I believe that we need to have different kinds of conversations. We need to experiment and test daring new ideas. We have to acknowledge that many of our tried and true programs and practices are not actually delivering our intended impact. And as we grow bolder and more courageous with our strategies, we will encounter failures.  

Research shows that only 30% of organizational transformation efforts succeed. After years and billions, we have yet to solve our social and environmental ills. Let’s not kid ourselves that we will be 100% (or even 80%!) successful.

To live into a world where good strategies fail—and where we make progress on all those big complex challenges—we can start by shifting our mindsets and behaviors. Here are some of the shifts that I am trying out: 

  • Separate performance from impact. A well-executed and well-funded strategy might not deliver the intended results. Let go of what is not working even when it is core to who you are as an individual and as an organization. Accept that the strategy is a failure and move on. 
  • Acknowledge the impact of our efforts and our failures on those that are less privileged. It is a privilege to be a nonprofit leader. When our efforts do not succeed, there are impacts on the lives of people. Listen to understand those impacts. Listen to better understand why the strategy failed. Listen for what to try next.
  • Be an intentional learner. Know the hypothesis and assumptions behind every strategy. Identify the data that you need to collect to test that hypothesis. Analyze the data with an open and humble mind.
  • Share the failures and talk about them openly and honestly so that others can learn from them.

I’m sure that there are others to add to this list. I’m even sure that some of these are the wrong ideas – and that I will fail in my effort to adopt them. What I do know is that it is incumbent upon us to be more courageous in our efforts. 

Let’s keep this conversation going. Share your thoughts and your failures. You can reach me at meredith@thirdspacestudio.com.