Charlotte needs to fail -- in a good way

Munro Richardson, Read Charlotte executive director, listens as Jessica Akonga 8, reads her new book. Read Charlotte is an example of an organization that knows how to "fail well."
Munro Richardson, Read Charlotte executive director, listens as Jessica Akonga 8, reads her new book. Read Charlotte is an example of an organization that knows how to "fail well." Observer file photo

Charlotte is “failure deprived.” It’s a term coined by Harvard and Stanford to describe students who, although outstanding on paper, seem stuck. Charlotte is highly ranked on many “best places to live” lists and by most common metrics is a great place to live. We have multiple sports teams, plenty of art and culture, decent cost of living and beautiful weather. Yet we also have segregated schools and neighborhoods, too many people without access to fresh food and waiting lists for many of our social services programs.

It seems we are also outstanding on paper, but stuck.

The Harvard and Stanford research connected being “stuck” with not knowing how to fail, which is problematic because failure is connected to resiliency. Resilience is important for cities too. 100 Resilient Cities, a part of the Rockefeller Foundation, defines urban resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” Resilience is ultimately about the well-being of the citizens.

The key to resilience for both students and cities is knowing how to fail. Failure, like many other things, exists on a spectrum (Check out Amy C. Edmondson’s "The Spectrum of Failure"). On one end of the spectrum is bad failure such as inattention and process inadequacy. On the other is good failure created by uncertainty or testing new ideas.

We have plenty of bad failure in Charlotte. Our lack of attention to mixed-income housing development in the past 20 years and our inadequate process of producing reports but not results are two examples.

What we need is good failure. We need to test ideas so we can learn. Read Charlotte is an example of good failure. Last year, it launched a 100 Day Challenge for new ideas to increase literacy rates for kids from birth to third grade. Groups of community leaders, organized into Action Learning Teams, came up with new ideas and tested them – all in 100 days. Their model of Define, Design, Do and Learn accommodates failure and improvement as part of the process. The successful ideas are now being scaled across the community to benefit all children.

Another example is HackathonCLT, hosted by Tresata, where the tech community tackles a big challenge — this year it was affordable housing. In less than 24 hours, teams create algorithms and mobile/web applications to solve the community challenge. The best ideas then head to a local partner, in this case the Charlotte Housing Authority, for testing and implementation.

There are many ways to create an environment for good failure. At Smith College, students take “Failing Well.” We should add failure education to our leadership development programs. Davidson College has a Failure Fund for students who want to try new ideas. We should create one to complement the Leading on Opportunity work. Eli Lilly hosts regular Fail Parties, where scientists present ideas that have failed. By acknowledging it decisively, it frees up research dollars for new ideas more quickly than traditional processes.

We cannot let our fear of failing lead to failing each other. I’ll see you at the next Fail Party.

Email: amy.observer@gmail.com