Institutionalizing Risk Taking (UNICEF + Failure)

Conversation: Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs

When we talk about failure at UNICEF we talk about it as an action and a process, rather than a result. That is: instead of saying: “Whatever! Failure is awesome. Let’s have a lot of them!” we approach it as “lots of fast failures are a natural part of a process leading to a success.” We still have a lot of failures- but they are, on average, fast and cheap.

The institutional failure isn’t an end state – rather, it’s a learning moment and a way to move forward. This is important – because (as has been noted) there is the possibility of having a cavalier attitude toward failure and absolving oneself (or one’s institution) of responsibility. The problem is not the multiple small (failures / attempts / experiments / trials / prototypes) that lead to a big success but the big (huge) failures which drag on for years and piles of money and then become so scary and imposing that they can’t be broken down, dissected, and talked about.

We’ve tried to capture this in both micro and macro ways.

Macro Fails

A writeup of Failfaire in FastCo

Working with Katrin Verclas and others, we’ve had several FailFaires. These allow us to publicly share things that have not worked. They have also brought out other parts of the UN family and created a pretty friendly environment for discussion and learning. At that last FailFaire we heard about a project from Will Kennedy that was very close to something that we were planning to do – and we were able to switch ours around to capture some of the lessons he shared.

The problem with these is that they are still pretty individual-centered. They don’t capture the larger, multi-facetted, organizational failures as well as: “this was a project of mine, and this is what I did wrong.” The latter is still a huge step forward – but in order to hit the compounded failures (where all sorts of existing systems come together to form a perfectly impenetrable storm) – we may need to develop the model further.

Micro Fails

Failure Fridays

This one’s easy – and it’s really more of a team management technique than any massive external change mechanism. Every Friday our team in NY sits around and each person shares something that they succeeded at, something that they failed at, and something that confused them (from the past week). These happen in whatever order, and each person gets one share before handing it over to the person next to them. We discuss each share for a minute or two and move on. The entire exercise takes an hour (and the moderation shifts each week, allowing for slightly different flows each time).

Failure Fridays (which, occasionally, happen on a Thursday) are a way for us to eat our own dogfood and grow the right internal muscles on our team to acknowledge concrete wins but also talk through failures and difficulties.


As our organization becomes increasingly driven by realtime data the total return time for a failure can be shortened. We know that prototyping quickly leads to better results than planning a huge block of a project and charging forward with it – and we are developing the management tools (at a structural level of UNICEF) to be able to incorporate these learnings and methodologies into our global work for children.

Chris Fabian

UNICEF Innovation Unit Co-Lead


Follow the conversation about Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs here

Related reading:

FAILFaire – Improving the lives of children by encouraging adults to talk about their failures

“Are we falling into a ‘buzzword trap’ around failure?”

“Doing something new or different that adds concrete value”

Conversation: Ecosystems for Innovation and the Role of Innovation Labs


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