The F word: So What?

A couple of weeks have passed since we hosted the inaugural F Word event at City Hall, in partnership with the Sports Think Tank. A day dedicated to learning from failure and the benefits it can bring. As with any event, we had lots of things that didn’t go completely to plan but for a first effort, we are generally pleased with the outcome. And we have a lot of learning to take from it!

As impact measurement people, the question we always ask our clients is “so what” – 100 participants come through a mentoring programme, “so what”. We want to look at the impact on them people. We encourage all organisations we work with to focus on outcomes and answer the “so what” question before they even start collecting their data.  The outcome or the “so what” is the result or change we expect to see from an output. In this case, our output was The F Word. And we thought it was important that we answered the so what question for ourselves.

When we decided to do The F Word and embark on this journey to positively talk about failure, we had some key outcomes in mind. We wanted to start a conversation, a bit of a movement within the third sector to take the stigma out of the word failure. We wanted to celebrate organisations and sectors already embracing learning through failure well and see if we could learn from them. The F Word isn’t about celebrating incompetence. Failing isn’t great. But if we can take something from it, then at least the learning is worthwhile. And that is what we are championing. But there is no point doing an event or a conference if you do not have an intended outcome.  Otherwise it’s just another day of talking shop, albeit about a slightly different subject than we normally do. 

So, what was the impact of the event?

It’s a bit early to tell but we have sent out a survey and so far the feedback has been very constructive. We will be sharing the results of this soon once we have analysed it fully. We were hoping to have more delegates than we got in the end and we didn’t feel that every element was perfect but that is part of the risk of organising something completely new! 

While we never expected that a one-day event would magically change the mindset of organisations towards learning through failure, we do feel that it was a good start and started some very positive discussions around the subject. Since the event, a lot of organisations and people have got in touch wanting to find out more, give suggestions for improvement and get involved with future F word events so we consider that impactful, albeit on a very small scale for now. We hope The F Word will be the start of a much wider movement for our sector, as we have seen from other industries like the airlines and tech. That is when we will see whether the event had real impact. But for now, we do feel like we have moved the needle, at least a tiny bit.

On the day itself we heard powerful conversations around the need for funders being receptive to failure and not seeing this as something to be penalised but worked on. We witnessed how your reputation and relationship with your board and stakeholders can actually be enhanced through open and transparent reporting. We also heard how the airline industry shares failures around their industry of which are tackled and explored by cross-organisation stakeholders. These are just three examples of on-the-day discussions and hope they can result in tangible next steps, whether that is just a small shift in attitude.

So, what would success look like? 

More organisations talking about the things that haven’t worked. Openly and honestly sharing the things they have tried that have failed, without fear of blame or shame. We hope that the word failure will become synonymous to success and we, as a sector, regularly and rigorously study our programmes and projects to extract value from the things that didn’t work – and then share this with each other! 

For us success is that learning through failure becomes embedded with Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning process and we all start to improve our return on it. When something doesn’t go as planned, it becomes an opportunity to challenge our default beliefs and adjust accordingly. Making us more effective, more resilient and more impactful going forward. 

So, what is our plan going forward? 

We want to ensure that we carry on this momentum. That we do our part in learning through failure, especially when it comes to impact. To this end, we will be holding a series of smaller F word events around the UK where we will bring together impact professionals and charities to discuss the failures we see and do in impact measurement and MEL. The details are yet to be ironed out but we are thinking of 15-20 people for a few hours in different cities around the UK, focused on key impact failures, examples of openness and transparency and ideas to learn from each other. We will be sharing all the learning from these events on The F Word website so the entire sector can benefit.

To view photos from the day click here, and to watch the F Word Summary video click here

If you are interested in jointly hosting or attending one of these, then do get in touch with us to help us shape what this could look like.

For more info on The F Word, please visit