The downsides of linear thinking, and why we need to embrace failure


[Image description: An abstract image made by computer, probably using mathematical equations to generate fractals. There grey and white and patterned spheres, sheets, columns, all bending and connecting and confusing. Image obtained from]

The world is complex. Therefore, to put order to things, we try to become more organized and linear in many aspects of life and existence: In battle: first we send the scouts to check out lay of the land and our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses, then we send in the infantry. In marriage: First, we date, then we have the parents meet, then we get married. In going to IKEA: First we spend 30 minutes finding parking, then we get panic attacks in the lamps aisle, then we get into fights with our partner.

In the nonprofit sector, this linear sort of thinking is pervasive, seeping into every aspect of our work, manifesting in things such as:

  • Logic models expressing a direct relationship between inputs, outputs, outcomes, etc.
  • Funders not giving funding to organizations until they have sufficient data and a “track record”
  • An employee giving campaign requiring organizations to have three or more years of existence as a 501c3 before they can even be eligible for funding
  • Hiring managers requiring formal education as an essential qualification (you go to college, then you get a job)
  • Funders giving grassroots organizations smaller funds, then slightly larger amounts as they “prove” themselves
  • Funders halting giving funds out while they do a strategic planning process
  • Rigid 3-to-5-year strategic plans that leave little room to respond to emerging needs

It is not working. In fact, I would argue that this penchant for linear thinking oversimplifies the problems we are trying to solve, and thus in fact are worsening and perpetuating them. The societal challenges we are dealing with are incredibly complex, morphing and adapting all the time; we cannot continue to believe that we can effectively respond to this complexity by being even more rigid and linear and believing that things happen in sequence.

In addition, this sort of linear thinking is inequitable, leaving behind marginalized communities and the people around whom the work should be centered. In every instance of linearity above, marginalized communities are the most affected: Grassroots orgs led by these communities are least likely to have a strong logic model or track record; they are least likely to be able to survive while waiting for funders undergoing hiatus to do a strategic funding process; people of color face more barriers to obtaining formal education, etc.

And as I wrote about previously in the post called Weaponized Data, the linear belief that “first we must get data, then we do the work” screws over smaller grassroots communities due to the Data/Resource Paradox: You need good data to get funding, but since good data is expensive, you need funding to get good data. Only larger, mainstream organizations then can get access to data and resource, which means they get to shape the conversation; and while everyone is well-meaning, it happens over and over again that crappy policies and programs are put into place because the people most affected by injustice are not leading the work.

Linearity hurts communities. And it hurts the work that we are doing. Which is why recently I’ve been hearing and seeing more conversations around the need to be less linear and more adaptive and dynamic, to question and adjust as we go along, and to welcome failure as part of the process. There are various names for this type of thinking: Rapid Prototyping; Double-Loop Learning; Rapid Iteration; and Asymmetric Meta-Morphological Response (AMMR).

Many of these ideas were created in the tech/business sector, and as much as I roll my eyes at tech/biz people looking down on us in the nonprofit sector, this dynamic/adaptive way of doing and making stuff is one thing we can learn from them (that, and also, I want a ball pit). The societal problems we deal with—poverty, hunger, homelessness, environmental degradation, education inequity, etc.—are vastly more complicated than what our for-profit friends deal with, and yet we still harbor some inflexible ways of doing things. Basically, the problems we’re dealing with are like IKEA; but we still think we’re going shopping at Walgreens. We need to reexamine this pull of linear thinking, because injustice is not linear; it is dynamic, constantly changing and adapting. We, the sector fighting injustice, must be too. Here are some ways all of us can try to do it:

Try Real-Time Strategic Planning: As advanced by La Piana, RTSP is “a fluid, organic process that helps nonprofits identify, understand, and act on challenges and opportunities as they arise — today, not in six months when the ‘new plan’ is done.” This is especially important right now, as the current political climate compels all of us to reexamine what the heck we and our orgs are actually doing. If our shiny strat plans have not adapted at all this year, have not changed one bit to take into consideration the existential threats engulfing our communities, then what good are these plans?

Have a “Portfolio Strategy”: This is what RVC’s Managing Director Ananda Valenzuela calls a strategy where we engage in a variety of things, anticipating that some of them will work, some will fail. It’s like investment in the stock market: we have to diversify our stocks, anticipating that there will be a net positive among the weak-performing stocks and the strong-performing ones. Imagine if you only invested in the stock you know will do well. Then you don’t take any risks. And we all know that some of the best-performing companies are/were the riskiest ones. (Or so I’ve heard; one day, I’ll understand what a stock is) All of us should invest in a portfolio of strategies, some we know will do well, some that are 50-50, and some that are bold, ambitious ideas that may just fail completely.

Take risks and welcome failures: The focus on what is safe, what is linear, what is measurable, what gives the best ROI, has fostered in our sector a fear of failure and an aversion toward risks. This article “The Need to Let People Fail,” points out that progressive funders, and thus nonprofits they fund, are rigid and risk averse, while more conservative funders and organizations have been adaptive, dynamic, ambitious, constantly responding to changing variables, and taking big risks. This probably explains why they have been winning lately, despite being outnumbered. We must all be willing to take more risks in everything, try bigger and bolder things, and not only accept that most of the things we try will fail spectacularly, but welcome these failures and the lessons they bring.

Understand iterative and dynamic data gathering: Right now, our sector often operates like this: First we gather data (for example, a community-needs assessment), then we process it, then we write some sort of white paper or report, then we implement strategies. It is a linear pathway to obtaining and using data, and it has some major flaws. It often fails to take into consideration the lived-experiences of communities most affected by injustice, dismissing it as “qualitative” data in favor of more “academic” research. It takes a lot of time and resources, sometimes years, which many people hurting right now do not have. And often, because it takes so long, the hard-earned data is no longer relevant because the real world has changed. A better approach is to do an iterative process, where academic research works in tandem with real-time, on-the-ground experimentation, both mutually supporting each other’s development through numerous iterations. This allows for strategies to be implemented much faster, data to be used quicker, and the data is more relevant because it’s constantly tested on the ground.

Do everything faster: we are under this mistaken belief that injustice will neatly align with our schedules for dealing with it. Hence the 12-month grant timelines, etc. Scheduling things makes us feel safe; it gives an illusion of control. But the problems facing our communities do not have a timeline. Racism doesn’t sleep. Poverty does not have quarterly meetings. Xenophobia does not wait. We need to do and fund things faster, even if that means bending the linear schedules and processes we have set. 

A message for funders and donors:

I think breaking out of this linearity trap is critical for our sector to be able to make progress on many of the challenges our world is facing. But there is only so much we nonprofits can do if funders and donors are not willing to diverge from traditions. We can have bold visions and strategies, but they won’t work if no one is willing to fund them. One of the biggest frustrations plaguing leaders on the front line of social justice work is this horrible paradox of “We will only fund you if you are innovative, but not if you don’t have a track record and data to prove your strategy will work.” This inflexible, linear sort of thinking and aversion to experimentation and failure have been squashing the morale of thousands of visionary leaders from communities of color and other marginalized communities.

I know, because these communities and leaders are whom my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, works with. We have been piloting a bold strategy to build the capacity and power of communities of color and organizations led by them, creating an Alliance of organizations that share administrative and fundraising services, work together to build collective power, and be training grounds to develop the next generation of leaders of color. In our work, I’ve seen time and time again smart and passionate leaders and organizations get shot down because of our sector’s gravitation towards the linear, the safe:

Your idea is brilliant; but your logic model wasn’t clear enough. Sorry, please apply next year.” Or

“Your idea is brilliant, and we love that it came from the community you serve; but it doesn’t align with our strategic direction.” Or

Your idea is brilliant; but you’ve only been around a year and have no proof that your strategy will work.”

We are losing visionary leaders that our world desperately needs right now. Many of burn out, and in Seattle, they become real-estate agents. The sector has to be more open to risks and experimentation and the requisite failure that comes with it. We don’t tell a cancer researcher, “That’s a promising approach, but how do you ensure it will actually work? What’s your track record?” We still continue to fund cancer research, despite the fact that no cure has been found, as we should. Why do we think that problems such as homelessness, child abuse and neglect, poverty, hunger, education disparity, and racism are less complex and should have clear logic models and track records of success? These problems are infinitely complex, often stemming from systemic injustice and are interrelated.

To do this work well, we must be willing to reexamine and occasionally let go of many of the things we have been taught are good: rigid plans, timelines, budgets, data gathering processes, the need to be assured that something will work. Nonprofits will take risks and be bold and visionary and accept failure, but funders and donors must be willing to do the same. The way the world is going right now, it is critical that we all do.

Now if anyone needs me, I’ll be in the fetal position in one of the aisles of IKEA. Maybe I’ll find one of these “stocks” that I keep hearing about there.

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17 thoughts on “The downsides of linear thinking, and why we need to embrace failure

  1. LouAnn Lucke

    An old friend of mine (say 40 years ago) told me once, after she had become a piano technician, that the need to “prove” that you will solve a problem diminishes proportionally to the level at which you have ascended – this doctors don’t have to do this, nor do lawyers, but lots in middle to lower levels do. I think this applies to your points.

  2. John Mulvey

    This analysis is spot on. So was your take a while back on “innovation.” I’m wondering whether the funders touting “innovation” would bite at the Alliance model you describe. It would at least provide an opportunity to say to the innovation funders “put your money where your mouth is.”

  3. bethkanter

    Thank you bringing up the “F” word again … a few years back funders and nonprofits were talking about this – even had “Fail Fest” events and sites where people could read about failures that happened to funded projects (in development) and not replicate those mistakes. But the discussion was not been going on a few a while now and glad you are shining a light on it.

  4. Patrick Taylor

    I was so intrigued by the AMMR link that I’m having an emergency session with our board to push them to adopt it.

  5. Seth Ehrlich

    Thank you Vu! Spot on and much needed. The trap of the data and linear can prevent action and limit impact.

  6. Steven Byers

    Hi Vu –
    I’d be happy to offer a systems thinking workshop for any group you could assemble. It would be a fun, interactive, learn-from-each-other experience. If interested, send me a note: I’m in Olympia, but come to Rainier Beach every Friday to take care of grandbabies… Perhaps we could meet. I also help GRuB with strategic planning here in Oly, as a board member.

  7. Jen Beatty

    Hmm…as a strictly linear thinker in all I do and am, I’m not sure I am 100% on board with this post.

    What if, as a funder, we are not touting support for only innovative and proven organizations? What if we get so many requests that we must have some sort of process and criteria to evaluate and make decisions? So that when we do NOT fund organization, we can provide some sort of meaningful feedback for if/when it might become appropriate to undertake a new application? This feels to me a bit like “Fund us because we ask! Because we are doing good work!” To that I say: “How do we know you are doing good work?” We aren’t there everyday (nor can we be) to see that you’re doing good work. We must trust that you are based on information that you provide and/or who the player are in your work or organization. I see your points, but I fail to see a path to improving our current system. But, hey, maybe that’s because it’s not linear and that is my primary way of thinking.

    1. Colin Jones

      I don’t know that Vu is making the case for doing away with all funding criteria and processes. Instead, this reads as a case for *new* criteria and processes that are more flexible and iterative. The problem with linear thinking applied to a non-linear world is that it often leads us to look at the wrong evidence and misinterpret the relationship between factors.

      For instance, the default assumption is that a $100k grant will have the same impact on all orgs — that impact is linear — so we try to find the orgs that have the capacity or track record to prove they can manage it well. But the default assumption is wrong, a $100k grant doesn’t have the same impact on organizations of all sizes: increasing an organization’s budget from $250k to $350k is going to have a much larger impact than increasing a budget from $2m to $2.1m. So we’ll often make a bigger impact by awarding grants to smaller orgs.

      Non-linear thinking is largely about reevaluating our assumptions. This recent HBR article is pretty heavy on the business jargon, but I think it’s a nice complement to Vu’s piece, illustrating some of the problems with our pervasive linear-thinking bias.

      1. Jen Beatty

        Thanks Colin! I appreciate your thoughtful comment and the link to that article to further clarify.

      2. Will_I_Tell

        I’m banned from howlround, so I’m replying here and then I’m out. They literally banned me for saying we should not judge people by race. Progress.

        You might be right about demographics not being the answer, but we know these trends affect every other field in the study. So this is a proven trend we should at least examine. a proven fact. Why dismiss a fact in hand?

        I’m shocked that people are arguing with me about correlation and causation. The gender disparity is NOT proof of systemic sexism and racism. Differential outcome is not proof of differential treatment. No scientist would argue this, it cannot be used in court, if it could it would have been. the only thing a statistical difference proves is that there’s a difference. We have to find out why. We have assumed causation from correlation. This violates one of the most basic principles of reason and statistical analysis. I’m convinced that people have been taught that correlation equals causation. And look what happens.

        We know there is a problem, but we need at least to know applicant information. If we had data on who was applying, we COULD conclude systemic racism/sexism by proving disparate impact. It would be airtight evidence, the smoking gun, admissible in court. But we are stumbling at the starting block by *believing disparate outcome proves differential treatment.* Someone could easily get the study funded. We aren’t doing that. Do you see the problem?

        The critics in NYC did nothing wrong. Their criticisms were mild and common. A play being too ambitious is almost a cliche critique.

        And finally, please, please look at the meta study of 499 studies of implicit bias tests conducted over the last 20 years. There is no evidence bias influences behavior. None. One of the creators of the IAT admits this here:

        I apologise for the length and good luck.

  8. Michael Brand

    Glad to see Steven Byers beat me to it in mentioning Systems Thinking. When thinking systemically, one can see that funders exist in a political world as well as we do. Foundation, public agencies, even individual donors bring their needs to the process. While we would certainly like to see more funders create ‘risk funds’ that act like venture capital, very few have the flexibility with their stakeholders to launch such an initiative.

  9. Tricia Hein

    This reminds me of an initiative I read about that a branch of AmeriCorps worked on in Utah. Their goal was to help solve homelessness. The linear approach had always been, “Help people get off drugs and alcohol, then they can get a job, then they can afford a house.” But obviously this is not the truth, and it simplifies matters a whole lot. So the initiative operated on the idea that people with houses will be much better off. Of course, getting funding was near impossible because everyone they sought out subscribed to the linear approach. But they were able to convert a building into suitable apartments which were then occupied. No one living there was under any obligation to seek employment, or drug-counseling, but it was made available if they chose to do these things on their own. The result was that when people had better living conditions, they were healthier, less likely to have issues with substance abuse, and more apt to hold a job. It has not been tried on a larger scale that I know of, other than groups building small housing in certain metropolitan areas, and it is still sort of a linear approach, but I think it shows the benefits of twisting our thinking.

    1. Georgia Jenkins

      Tricia – This is called “Housing First” and it’s a proven method that many cities across the country are now doing! It does work – and you’re right that it took a twist in thinking!

  10. jhthomas

    We totally use experimentation and testing in my organization, and I’m very glad we do, for pretty much the exact reasons Vu lays out above.

    I’m not an expert on the tools, but here are some of the (open-source) tools and resources we use:

  11. Ben Sachs-Hamilton

    Thank you for this post, Vu! At EmcArts, we use many of the strategies you discuss in our work with nonprofits and community groups, including adaptive planning, rapid prototyping (“Small Experiments with Radical Intent”), learning from failure, and ongoing developmental evaluation. Our experience is that, while progress is slow, an increasing number of funders are recognizing the need for this kind of shift in approach as well. Many of them want to encourage innovation among their grantees, but breaking old habits of grantmaking can be hard. Hopefully more voices like yours can help to show them the way!

  12. Bryann Alexandros

    I agree Vu. The linearity in the nonprofit sector straitjackets and sucks the life out of everyone, including how we make change in our own organizations.

    I’ve been trying to introduce new ways of thinking as well on my front. But the walls of the “citadel” are still standing tall. Gatekeepers would rather have things as they are, never changing and forever blocking out the entry of new energy and new ideas.

    Jan Masaoka of Blue Avocado called this the “Philanthropic Consultant Industrial Complex.” I know we’re all a part of that system and lots of us operate in a consulting capacity, but linearity is hurting how we solve wicked problems; there’s still a strong defense over rigid timelines, 3-5 year strategic plans, dusty outdated data, and anything that screams safety, security, and “best practices.”

    It’s terribly ironic when funders and donors lob around words like “innovation” like a puppy that playfully tosses a paper bag in the air, not realizing that experimentation and speed is a part of the innovation equation: You have to learn quickly what works and what doesn’t, so failures are inescapable.

    Real-time Strategic Planning, Adaptive Planning, Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, Agile, Rapid Prototyping — It all works. Everyone’s got a piece of the solution because all these practices and philosophies intersect with one another.

    Hopefully we can have something similar to a nonprofit Fail Fest. Or maybe a Next Nonprofit Practices Conf where all of us come together, immersing people in those new ways of operating. Too many organizations are getting their hopes up, unaware there are better ways because someone else told them “this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

    So until we come together, we’re like tribes scattered across the land, promoting our own agenda (“Come to MY workshop!”). We’re never going to have the critical mass we’re hoping for. The citadel stands tall and its guardians are at ease knowing that we remain divided.

    All the best.


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