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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