Don't let the fear of failure cripple your effectiveness

Boards shouldn't ignore risks, but equally they must not get paralysed by the thought of doing something that might fail writes Elizabeth Balgobin

Although nobody wants to fail, an 'honest' failure can lead to learning and improvement says Elizabeth Balgobin
Although nobody wants to fail, an 'honest' failure can lead to learning and improvement says Elizabeth Balgobin

March was my month for reflection: winter is ending, spring is poking its head up once in a while and the year feels ready to start. It is Lent as well as the time of the Jewish festival of Purim. One is about sacrifice, the other is about letting yourself go - both things that I am contemplating this month.

One of the ways that I spring-clean my mind at this time of the year is to take a week away. Some of it will be spent with others, but I will be alone for most of it, reviewing the year just passed - what has worked, what hasn't - and assessing the challenges I have faced and those that I want to set myself for the year ahead.

It is also the time of year that many boards will be doing something similar as they turn their attention to approving the annual plan and budget. How many, I wonder, have thought about the risks inherent in their work and the uncertainties their annual plans might put in front of them?

Risk-averse culture

The voluntary sector can be very risk-averse, which is perverse, given that most organisations and activities within it started by taking a risk: a leap of faith, if you will, asserting that something needed to be done and this was the way to do it. Yet once it is established, the organisation's need to protect, conserve and be prudent means that everything is about eliminating and mitigating risk. The big, unspoken risk that every board fears, though, is the risk of failure.

At the turn of the century the wonderful Ceri Hutton and I wrote a report called Burying Failure, Smothering Success about the aims of the Single Regeneration Budget (anyone remember the SRB?) and the way it was delivered in Hackney. I often mention this report to boards I work with as they struggle to articulate what they have learned over the past year. Eventually we all realise that the real learning has occurred when there has been a failure. Very little learning emerges with the successes. What's more, the failures haven't always been in the areas where boards were concerned that risks might be too high.

How we manage risk is an important part of the duties of trustees.

Financial risk is uppermost in our minds as we live through times that continue to be tough financially. Reputational risk often comes up in the discussions I have facilitated, while the loss of key staff and the effect of their departure on delivery simply lead to a shrug of the shoulders. But the risk of not doing something is rarely considered.

Life is risky and we are constantly evaluating the small and medium risks we face from day to day. We do it without much thought and, using our experience and judgement, make the adjustments to mitigate the risks.

Sometimes we make the decision to take a big risk in life. In my case this was giving up my happy existence as a chief executive and facing the poverty and vagaries of being out there, scrabbling for work. Some organisations I know have taken on big mortgages and bought their own buildings. For your organisation the risk might be to pull out of a contract, change the direction of your work (within your constitution, of course), merge or finally try out a new idea.

Informed decisions

Think about what failure might look and feel like. Don't ignore the risks but, equally, don't get paralysed by the thought of taking a risk. Was there an idea that failed in the past but you really think you should try again? Recycle, upcycle, reuse, renew and revisit this, and in doing so be sure to apply the lessons of the past, the knowledge of the present and the forecasts you have of the future.

Do not fear failure; if you have done everything you can to plan, and are able to learn from a failure, even when it might cost you financially and possibly even dent your reputation, then it will be a good, honest failure, not a bad, underhand one. Own up to it and share the learning so that we all learn and improve. Hiding your failures looks like you have something to hide. Be proud of trying something new and shout about the success.

Elizabeth Balgobin is a charity governance consultant

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