Ashley Good, the founder of Fail Forward.
In the midst of film screenings and fancy parties at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I was invited to a private luncheon followed by a front row seat at the highly anticipated Women in the World Canada Summit that took place at the Art Gallery of Ontario. While there may not have been a red carpet, the summit was indeed star studded with featured guests that included PM Justin Trudeau and Angelina Jolie.
The generous invite came from my friends at Always, the leader in global feminine care, and a sponsor of the Women in the World Canada summit. Committed to convening women leaders, activists and political change-makers from around the world to share their stories, and offer solutions to building a better life for women and girls, it was not surprising why Always and their empowering #LikeAGirl campaign would be a natural fit for this event.
Tina Brown, Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung at Women in the World Canada.
(image source: New York Times)
Before heading to the summit, the group of women in attendance at the Always luncheon were treated to presentations and discussions by P&G Group President, Carolyn Tastad, and Fail Forward Founder, Ashley Good.
I was so intrigued by Ashley and her globally-recognized business, Fail Forward, which is the world’s first failure consultancy. What exactly is a failure consultancy and how does one even come to create such a thing? That’s what I wanted to know, so I asked her. Read our Q&A below!
Ashley Good of Fail Forward:
Business Name: Fail Forward
Name & Title: Ashley Good, Founder and CEO
Location: Toronto, ON
Education: BSc in Environmental Science and Geophysics from the University of British Columbia
GC: Tell us about your company, what do you do?
AG: Fail Forward is the world’s first failure consultancy, and works to support people and organizations to allow, acknowledge and adapt failure in pursuit of innovation. We are globally recognized and have helped hundreds of individuals and businesses harness failure in order to learn, innovate and build resilience.
GC: How did you start your business? What inspired you to start?
AG: In 2010 I was working for Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Northern Ghana with a team of people who were (and I’m sure still are!) brilliant and exceptional at their jobs – but the project was failing in many ways, for many reasons.
When the founder flew in from Rome to evaluate how the project was going these brilliant people didn’t feel safe talking to him about the real challenges and failures they faced every day. They liked their jobs and knew when he asked what wasn’t working, that it was safer to give standard answers like “Oh, we just need more time and funding” instead of ruffling feathers by talking about the embedded flaws in the project design.
Watching this interaction play out, a light bulb went on for me: projects would continue to be designed with these flaws until someone was brave enough to risk their good favour with the founder and tell them the truth about the challenges.
When I returned to Canada I saw the same pattern play out in many different sectors: CEOs of start-ups who knew the company was struggling but didn’t create the space for their staff to talk about the deep flaws and failures, big companies with so much success behind them that were unable to acknowledge the disruption happening to their industries, government departments that wanted to innovate and adapt to evolving needs of citizens but couldn’t rework the systems that reinforced the status quo.
It occurred to me just how bad we all are at dealing with failure intelligently and how much this was (and is) holding our organizations back from the learning and adaptation required to stay relevant and competitive in a rapidly changing world.
To role model the change I felt was so needed, I started leading the EWB Failure Report – a publication dedicated to speaking openly about things we tried that didn’t work. We published the report publicly, so it wasn’t long before other organizations started calling me to find out how we were able to create an organizational culture where openly talking about failure and learning was rewarded. As a side project, I started consulting for these other organizations and quickly that little side project became bigger than my full time job, so I made it my full time job by starting Fail Forward in 2011.
GC: Why do you love what you do?
AG: We all know in theory that we should take risks, innovate, learn from and adapt to failures, but in practice we tend to fear failure and deal with it poorly when it happens (i.e. ignore, deny, blame, self-criticize, try to fix it before anyone notices) and in doing so undermine our learning. As an example, Always #LikeAGirl research found half of Canadian girls feel society rejects those who fail and eight in ten girls want to quit when failure happens.
While lots of amazing thought leaders are talking about failing fast, building learning organizations and prototyping, I love what we do because it is all focused on helping individuals and organizations change their day-to-day practices to turn the theory into action and create the conditions where failing intelligently is the norm.
GC: What makes your business special?
AG: I don’t want us to be special! Success for me is when intelligent failure is something that everyone does every day. I hope this concept spreads far and wide so that people don’t need us anymore and we go out of business!
GC: What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from running your own business?
AG: Follow the excitement.
I have a bunch of ideas every day for things I could and should be doing to help Fail Forward grow and spread: host a failure pod cast, write a book, join forces with other great organizations doing this work, etc.
What I’ve learned is that I can have the best idea in the world, but if I don’t feel a passion and excitement for making it happen – and can see that excitement in others when I talk about it – there is no point in doing it.
I have learned to be lazy. I wait until the time is right and it feels easy to push something through. There is just not enough time in the day or energy in my brain to work on things that don’t have a natural momentum behind them.
GC: What is your number one piece of advice to keep in mind when starting your own business?
AG: Definitely just do it. But do it knowing your ideas are imperfect and therefore your goal should be learning how to improve as you go, so surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback.
GC: What is a challenge you’d tell future entrepreneurs to prepare for?
AG: It’s easy to become your business and have your identity get caught up in your work.
When your business is you, threats feel huge because they’re a threat, not just to your business, but to who you are.
I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to stay aware how much they tie themselves to their businesses and work at maintaining a sense of self that is separate, whole and happy outside of work.
GC: How do you stay organized, balanced and motivated?
AG: To be honest, I’m not sure I do. I have come to accept that I operate in cycles. I will take on way too much, take all sorts of risks, try all sorts of new things, all at the same time and eventually get super tired, if not totally burned out and miserable.
That’s when I pull back, I work on the safe stuff, the stuff I know I do well for a while. But inevitably after a few months of recharging I find myself getting bored and starting to seek out the big risky ideas again…and repeat. It’s a kind of balance, I guess, and it works for me.
GC: Who are some of your mentors/role models?
GC: Do you have a daily or regular ritual you practice that you love?
AG: At the end of every month I look back on everything I did and take a few notes on what worked (YAY! Self-Five), what didn’t (Okay, what do I need to change?) and any trends I’m noticing and try to adjust accordingly. It doesn’t take more than an hour or two and I always find the reflection time super valuable.
Also, and this sounds so bad but before I go to bed I ALWAYS make sure I check my calendar. I can’t tell you how many early morning meetings I would sleep through if I didn’t!
GC: Who are your clients and how do people get to work with you?
AG: I get hired by a huge range of organizations. The two common characteristics they share is they all want more room for innovation and risk taking, and they all know they could learn more from their missteps with a little help. Generally, the person who is most passionate about these issues, from the CEO to the intern, will call me up, tell me everything they see going wrong with how their organization currently deals with failure, and we start to create a plan together.
For more information on working with Ashley and Fail Forward, please visit FailForward.org
Thank you, Ashley!