Learning from failure (and social entrepreneurship)

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Mockeryfailure
I attended a fascinating lunchtime seminar the other week. It's not often the words 'fascinating', 'lunchtime' and 'seminar' are used in juxtaposition, so thought I would share some of the key points from the session. It was called, Trial, Error and the Big Society though it was more 'trial, error and failure in the public policy sphere' in reality (it would appear you're actually not allowed to hold any event currently without the words Big + Society in the title…). Aubrey Fox, who has been working at the Young Foundation, was talking about the lessons from his work at the Center for Court Innovation, and his associated book Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure

Despite my lack of knowledge about the criminal justice system, Aubrey was thankfully making some points of more general relevance which I was able to make sense of. And I think there are some interesting lessons for both social entrepreneurs and those who support them. This is all in the context of "there is failure in anything you do" and "failure is difficult to talk about":

1) Failure is in the eye of the beholder: a binary view of pass/fail does not reflect the complexity of most project outcomes, nor the experiences of those taking part in it in some way; success looks different to different people, and so does failure

2) Working once doesn't mean it will work forever (or somewhere else): this is a fascinating one for us, because we franchise our model and are passionate about replication that works; but there are countless external factors beyond 'the model', and a constantly changing environment

3) Leadership is crucial: Aubrey made the interesting point that 'boring' leaders are better than 'heroic' leaders; it is also about different stages of leadership for different elements of a project….and how to achieve those leadership transitions (often a point of failure)

4) Work to close the gaps between policy + practice: still these two groups are not effective at working together (I know, shock!); but ways to avoid failure involve a two way street of nudging or incentivising or de-risking or facilitating policymakers to be more creative, and also training, supporting, developing practitioners to effectively run and sustain what they do and not to fall into the trap of…

5) …the 'seductive power of unrealistic expectations': another great phrase, and one that I've termed the risk of "overpromise and under-delivery"; actually, changing behaviours and cultural norms at an individual level (never mind organisational or system level) is very difficult; and there is an assumption (is this correct?) that "projects would not win (public) support with modest results"; but that is a short-term win rather than a long-term success outlook…..

Further points of interest were

– that the consequences for individual failure differ depending on the project or sector (i.e. it's fine for James Dyson to trial 550 different hoovers and throw them out, it's not the same with, say, young offenders)

– that structural leadership (of teams, of coalitions) with agreed analysis and measurement is important

– defining what success looks like too early can put a limit on ambition (aka "sometimes you need to hold your nerve")

– the burden of proof in the sector is often on the new, rather than the existing

– the value of "calculated candour" (a phrase I love), which speaks to the need to be open without being reckless, to being as straightforward as possible about what has worked and what hasn't; because openness builds trust, which builds credibility builds support….

– areas ripe for innovation might be those where the risk (and cost) of the status quo is higher than the risk (and cost) of innovation

– couple of interesting questions; one that doesn't get asked (what is your expected failure rate?) and one that was difficult to answer (what is the motivation for individuals to take risks and to admit failures?)

At that point, brain expanded, and tried to come back to work…learning and failing, learning and failing.

[hat-tip as ever to the wonderful Indexed blog for the image; buy the postcard book via the site!]

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Shameless sponsorship post: 13 (and a bit) miles of pain

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RockyNormally, this blog looks outward at the world of social enterprise + entrepreneurship, bringing (hopefully relevant) news, information, recognition and opinion.

But, just this once (and maybe for a reminder post next week), this blogger is indulging in a bit of self-promotion. I'm running a half-marathon in two weeks time, to raise money for SSE bursaries (giving social entrepreneurs who wouldn't normally get the chance to get supported on the programme). Along with my colleague Emma Mortoo, I will be running the Royal Parks Half-Marathon in sunny London town.

My training, like Rocky, has mostly involved running up the steps of Chiswick Town Hall (marginally fewer steps than the real thing), which seems adequate preparation for me. This is my excuse when Emma, whose stride length is about half mine, disappears into the distance from my wheezing frame.

Anyway, if you can, we'd love your support. You can support us here.Thanks in advance.

 

 

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Show me the numbers… of success

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Numbers We've been knee-deep in numbers at SSE this week; whether it's discussing social investment with all and sundry, measuring social impact, or powering through "spreadsheets of death". More exciting numbers about some of our Fellows and students this week are below:

 - Ros Spearing, whose Ebony Horse Club has got a £600,000 grant from Sport England towards their riding centre in Brixton (follow them on Facebook)

– Dave Miller, co-founder of Bikeworks, which is opening Bikeworks West next week; their no. 2 branch to follow the award-winning hub in East London, which will deliver similar services to thousands across west London; see their media page for more info

– Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Gangs Project who is holding the SOS Awards event tonight to recognise the achievements of his team and the clients who have turned their lives around. Of the clients they work with, only 12% reoffend (against a national rate of 75%)

Jack Harrison, current SSE London student, has won an award from Arthur Guinness/UnLtd to support his work at Carousel Futbal on the Calthorpe Project in Kings Cross. Up to £15,000 towards his excellent work.

Congrats to all: payment + results is where it's at. Breaking the 3000 follower threshold on Twitter, and 300 on our Facebook Page doesn't seem quite as impressive…. :0)

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Brief thoughts on the Social Impact Bond (and the future of funding)

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Bond
Yesterday I found myself at NCVO listening (and responding) to draft recommendations from their Funding Commission, which is looking at funding in the sector for the next 10 years. I won't dwell too much on that, but would recommend reading the Emerging Recommendations paper to inform your thinking for the short and long-term.

Social investment and bringing private / commercial / new sources of money into the sector both feature amongst its pages, and the Social Impact Bond (SIB) is also named as one of the financial models that might helpe achieve this. It is an ingenious model, that encourages private and social investment (through social AND financial return), mitigates risk (and upfront investment) for government, and provides that crucial upfront money for the providers in question. And it focuses the sector, quite rightly in my view, on measurement and proving their impact: delivering outcomes they say they will.

Today is the official start of the first pilot, which will tackle reoffending in Peterborough which has been widely covered in the media this morning: nice to hear the sector on Radio, TV and in the mainstream press. And one hopes it is a great success.

At NCVO, I happened to find myself opposite Toby Eccles from Social Finance the organisation behind the bond pilot. So I took the opportunity to ask my main question on SIBs, which I previously raised in our Big Society recommendations paper (pdf), which is "what about the less-easily monetisable outcomes, particularly those (such as social capital, trust, confidence etc) which are crucial to the Big Society agenda?" The risk being that this new money focuses on the easily quantifiable / monetisable stuff (for returns etc), at a time when funding and investment is shrinking across the board.

Toby rightly pointed out that they had to prove the concept, and do it with a fairly chunk-able, solid area (reoffending is such an area where costs, savings etc are easy to quantify) before moving on to other more complex and nuanced areas in a few years. And that SIBs are only one part of the piece. Which makes a lot of sense to me, and I hope that SSE and others can engage and participate in helping forge + create new SIBs (and other financial models) in other relevant areas of social policy.

The challenge, as I see it, is two-fold.

One is that "in a few years" might be a timescale that doesn't stack up in the current climate for a whole range of organisations, if government puts emphasis on this particular model (which is so attractive in the current economic circumstances). Particularly if the Big Society Bank, as the NCVO recommendations currently say, is primarily used to help underwrite these new models. Because, as the recommendations also make clear, there are also other crucial areas that need investment or attention: financial literacy (including investment readiness), early-stage grants (a la Communities First etc), impact-first investment of other types, increasing entrepreneurialism, skills for scaling/trading, attracting philanthropy and corporate support in other ways, and so on and so forth.

Secondly, therefore, how do we ensure that the various funding initiatives and funders (Big Society Bank, Big Local Trust + other Big Lottery programmes, Communities First, Social Impact Bonds, Venturesome, UnLtd, venture philanthropy, trusts + foundations etc etc) are complementary and meeting as many of those needs as possible, in the toughest climate in years? And in the years to come.

From the recommendations, and those thoughts, I take a few things away: as practitioners, social entrepreneurs and social enterprises, we can: measure impact better (more robustly, transparently, quantifiably as possible), improve our understanding of different types of donors (and the quality of asking + relationship management), increase our knowledge and understanding of finance (and of those we work with), and engage in the conversation about new financial models.

Which should be enough to keep me going for now…..

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SSE Yorkshire graduation video

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SSE Yorkshire + Humber assembled a great group of social entrepreneurs for their first programme. Unfortunately I couldn't make their graduation a few weeks back, but here's a great video by one of the new SSE Fellows, Justine Gaubert, which does as good a summary of SSE's approach from a participant's perspective as I've seen. Enjoy.

SSE Yorkshire promo graduation from Justine Gaubert on Vimeo.

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