Failure: A Problem or a Teaching Tool?

Failure: A Problem or a Teaching Tool?

Many advisors struggle with the question, “should I let (fill in the blank activity or program) that the organization is planning fail?” The general rule of thumb is if the event/activity can fail without creating a huge financial deficit or negatively affecting outside groups, and can be used as a learning tool afterwards, it can be okay to let it fail. Some advisors might not have the flexibility to make this decision if they have been instructed to ensure the success of the organization activities or they just do not want the activity to fail. Talk with the members of the organization before it gets to the point of possible failure to determine what the protocol will be and at what point the advisor should step in.

People learn from their mistakes, usually. A prompt and detailed evaluation of each activity/program coordinated by the organization will reveal ways to improve upcoming endeavors or show minor mistakes that can be avoided in the future. However, if major mistakes are allowed to happen, the impact on the organization could be detrimental or create a poor image of the organization on campus. Major mistakes may be something the organization or the University cannot afford since they may result in loss of volunteers, budget cuts and negative press. The organization stands to lose the most, so assist them in avoiding these mistakes.

Advisors can act as a mediator for members to minimize the number of events that may fail. Training programs for students can provide discussion about the prevention and ramifications of failure. The organization needs to know that canceling organization traditions may result in the loss of funding, a decrease in the number of future events, or a decrease in membership because of bad publicity. Organization members need to understand that the reach of their events extends beyond the scope of the active members. As a result of training, success, rather than the acceptance of failure, will be the criterion established for events.

Advisors can make failures a learning situation by emphasizing the positive and asking students how the process can be improved. At times students may be too hard on themselves if the event did not meet the group’s expectations. As an advisor, it is important to help students set realistic goals and evaluate the positive and negative factors that affected the event. Encouraging students to make checklists and timetables can help create a successful program for future years. Students also learn how to handle complaints as well as examine their own personal skills. As a result, leadership may change within an organization, or students may decide that they want to participate in activities in a way that is more suited to their abilities. Generally, it is recommended that advisors limit their input about the selection of programs and events the organization may choose, but ensure that the production and planning of the activity is handled well since mistakes seem to occur most often in this phase of event planning.

There often will be times when advisors are faced with the dilemma of deciding if they should intervene or if an event should fail. Advisors need to understand the organization’s members, the campus environment and the expectations of the University community before the decision can be made about letting an activity fail. Advisors can assist students by setting goals early, and they can seek advice from fellow professionals/advisors that have faced other similar situations. If the organization does fail, advisors can help students learn by not ignoring problems and by rationally evaluating what has taken place. Advisors then can make the experience beneficial and the program will not have been a total failure.

[Adapted from: Ron Callahan, The Consequences of Failure, Programming magazine.]

Additional Information