Failure: Organization Problem or Teaching Opportunity

One of the hardest things for an advisor to deal with is answering the question, “should I let __(fill in the blank with activity or program__ that the organization is planning fail?” As a general rule, 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 have been instructed to ensure the organization they advise succeeds or they simply do not want the organization to fail and therefore have a hard time allowing failure to happen. It is important that you talk with the members of the organization you advise before the point of possible failure to determine where the organization is at and at what point should you step in as advisor.

Most generally, students will learn from their mistakes. A prompt and detailed evaluation of each activity/program coordinated by the organization will reveal ways to improve future endeavors or reveal simple issues which can be adjusted 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. These types of mistakes may result in loss of volunteers, loss of funding, and negative press. The organization stands to lose the most, so assist them in avoiding the major mistakes. As advisor, you can act as mediator for members to minimize the number of events that may fail. A great way to help students grow in their planning skills is to prepare training programs which can allow them discussion about the prevention and ramifications of failure. It is important for student members to know that the reach of their events extends far beyond their own organization. As a result of training, success, rather than the acceptance of failure, will be the criterion established for events.

Advisors can help turn failure into a learning opportunity for students by emphasizing the positive and asking students to reflect on how the process can be improved. Many times, students will be too hard on themselves in the event of a failure and not meeting the expectations of their group. Setting realistic goals and evaluating positive and negative factors that affected the event are two great areas an advisor can help students to develop in the planning process. Encouraging students to make checklists and timetables can help create a successful program for future years. Through students learning how to handle complaints and examining their own personal skills, leadership may change with an organization, or students may decide to participate in activities in a way that is more suited to their own abilities. Remember to limit your 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.

It is quite common for advisors to be faced with the dilemma of deciding if they should intervene or if an event should fail. It is important that you understand the members of the organization, the campus environment and the expectations of the University community before the decision can be made about letting an activity fail. Remember to assist the students in setting goals early, and seek advice from fellow professionals/advisors that have faced similar situations. In the event of a failure, help the students learn by not ignoring the mistake 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 UW-Milwaukee Student Organization Advisor Manual, 6/2011