Institutional Change

Pivot from Setbacks

These activities help teams learn in the face of setbacks, failure, or mistakes. No one enjoys it when projects or workflows get derailed, but a team cannot learn when it’s pointing fingers at one another. To help your team learn from setbacks, one must consider mistakes and failure as growth opportunities. These activities also make learning from mistakes a fun experience.


1-2 hours

Group Size


Skill Level


Comfort Level



Flip Chart, Markers, Pink Boas or other silly props

Step 1

Prior to the meeting, ask participants to read this brief article about how nonprofits transform failure and pivot from setbacks and how to be open to learning from it.

Introduce the terms: “Fixed Mindset” and “Growth Mindset.” A fixed mindset assumes that our intelligence and creativity is limited. A growth mindset thrives on challenges. It sees failure as a springboard for stretching our abilities.

Write the term Fixed Mindset on one flip chart page and Growth Mindset on another. Ask people to find a partner and share examples they have experienced or observed of these two different mindsets in the workplace. Tell them they have a few minutes to discuss and remind them to listen to each other and give equal air time. Let them discuss examples for 5 minutes.

Step 2

When time is up, ask the group to volunteer to share 2 or 3 examples for Fixed Mindsets and 2 or 3 examples for Growth Mindsets. Summarize the examples.

Step 3

When we have a major setback or even something minor, we often feel like cringing. Those emotions do not help cultivate a Growth Mindset. There are several ways you can help your team alter their physiological response to failure by removing the demons of self-doubt and self-judgement. Without these negative feelings holding us back, a team can successfully adopt a culture of learning.


Here are three exercises you can choose from:


This exercise comes from a Seattle-based improvisation teacher, Matt Smith. It is called the failure bow. Trapeze artists, acrobats, and other athletes are trained to take a failure bow after a stumble because it releases them from the fear of making a mistake. Ask participants to think about a time when they made a mistake or experienced a major setback at work. Give them a minute to think about it. Most people respond with feelings of shame: they raise their shoulders or lower their heads.

Share with the group that you will lead them through the failure bow to eliminate these feelings of shame. Demonstrate the failure bow first. Instead of cringing when you make a mistake, you raise your hands in the air, announce, “I failed,” grin with a sign of confidence, and then move on. Then ask everyone to stand and do the failure bow with you two times.

Challenge your team to do a failure bow – even just mentally – in the face of any setbacks to metaphorically remove the stigma of a setback.


Introduce the next exercise, as a process to debrief after a setback. A Failfest is an off-the-record session open to staff and designed to send the following message: “Failure isn’t shameful.” As the facilitator, model that admitting mistakes is okay and can be rewarded with learning. If you feel comfortable, you can also ask one or two participants to volunteer to present after you.

Prior to the meeting, identify a setback that you experienced when you learned something and changed the way you were doing something. Your presentation should cover the history, and timing of the failure. What went right and what went wrong? What three things did you personally learn? Present your lessons as a fun metaphor. The intent is to remove the stigma from failure, the sillier the better. Put on a Pink Boa or other funny accessory and present your story for no more than 10 minutes. Take two minutes of Q&A from the team.


Introduce the next exercise, “Joyful Funeral,” as a ritual that your team can do as part of a regular team meeting to encourage learning from setbacks and making a good pivot. This can be used for small and big mistakes. When something isn’t working, make it okay for anyone on the team to ask, “Is it time to give this workflow, project, campaign, report, or whatever a joyful funeral? If others agree, they answer with “Let’s order the flowers.” And the next person asks, “is it time for an eulogy and burial?”

Then a team leader gives the eulogy asking participants to share what worked best about the project and what didn’t work. Ask the team what they could differently in the future and brainstorm ways to improve the project or do something different.

Step 4

Lead your team through a reflection about the activities they just completed.  Ask:

  • How did it feel to lift the stigma from making mistakes?  Did it make a more comfortable atmosphere for learning?
  • How can we institute some of the activities as a regular process for learning?
  • What other ways have you read about or heard about that we can incorporate learning into the way our team works?

Capture the ideas. Schedule the next failfest session or put time for any Joyful Funerals on your next staff meeting.