In 2013 Ashley Good won the Innovating Innovation Award from the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey and Company. She did not invent a new technology or new way of using technology; neither did she discover some new principle that governs successful enterprises. Instead, she was recognized for failure: her own and that of others.
Three years earlier she launched a website called admittingfailure.com. By her own admission the project failed. But trying to understand failure was her domain. Her interest in failure began when she was working for Engineers With Borders, assigned to a United Nations project in Ghana. When she arrived, her colleagues were all too happy to candidly tell her all the glaring deficiencies in the program and in its management. But when a U.N. evaluator arrived to make a report, all they would dare mention were minor equipment needs. Confronting the others with the dissonance between their silence in the presence of the evaluator but their disdain for the program itself, her fellow workings confessed they liked their jobs more than their concern for the success of the program. Good was prompted to explore the problem, beginning with the question ‘Why was it not safe to be honest?’
Along with reading as much as she could on the psychology of the workplace, neuroscience, and business culture, she launched her website. Failing chastened her but also made her even more determined – a characteristic she now describes as a tool for dealing with failure constructively. In 2011 Good founded a Toronto-based consulting firm called FailForward with an attendant website. It is Good’s second attempt at finding the “good” in failing that has garnered international acclaim.
If all her research can be reduced to three ideas, the first would be to accept the idea that everybody fails. The second would be how a person shows resilience and bounces back from failure is what is most indicative of character. How each person reacts to failure is entirely within his or her own control. The third would be that “sharing the shame” is the most effective way of overcoming shame and avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
Good’s thinking reinforces what Jews already know: “There is no man on earth so saintly that he does only what is best and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). People make mistakes. But our mistakes need not be fatal. Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is designed as a vehicle for publicly confessing mistakes and affirming that people can learn from them, strengthen character, and face the future with confidence instead of shame. Indeed, Yom Kippur is about “failing forward.”