Clear plan, full stop, can’t fail(?)

Social entrepreneurs are often told that it’s okay if things don’t go according to plan because there’s a reason for everything. And that reason is often because there is a lesson to be learned.

The truth is that bad things happening doesn’t always necessarily lead to lessons learned, better practices pledged, or even better outcomes. Sometimes a mess really is just a mess.

Too often, social entrepreneurs are encouraged to reimagine failure, mistakes, and setbacks as stepping stones to success. Let’s be real– these genuinely suck, they can be painful, and often not easy (or possible) to overcome.

Failure is the inability to achieve a desired outcome or objective despite concerted efforts. It often requires a serious reassessment or reappraisal of a current plan or strategy.

Mistakes are errors in judgment or execution that lead to unintended (but not always unexpected) consequences. They often stem from low-to-no oversight, limited information or poor data, disconnect or discord among a team, or other internal factors. Which means a social enterprise’s house is not a home, and that structure is in need of repair.

Setbacks are obstacles or challenges that hinder progress toward goals. They often arise from any number of external factors. Here it’s hard to find fault or assign blame, but there’s also no easy way to prepare for risks and challenges.

Leaders and teams possess varying degrees of control and influence over anything negative that happens in any social enterprise. Having a strategy and plan in place go a long ways towards preparing for and protecting against any challenge (almost).

But social enterprise teams also need a clear, rational, and level-headed view of communication, accountability, and options. They need time and space to recover, regroup, and reassess what’s going wrong. When they give themselves time to learn from their experiences, they also must give themselves permission to adapt their strategies, and promise to make informed decisions towards better actions moving forward.

Accepting and acknowledging any benefit from plans that go awry requires maturity, resilience, and grounded expectations about risk. Good founders and good leaders try to identify potential areas of concern as best as possible; good teams monitor those concerns alongside regular activities. Where intervention is needed, everyone takes their best measures possible to mitigate damage or harms.

While experimentation and innovation are important dynamics of any social enterprise, they are not the only drivers. Inspiration, passion, and a clear sense of purpose are the heart of a social enterprise, especially in its earliest stages. Day-to-day operations, management, and administration may not involve constant experimentation and innovation. But they do require dedication, attention to details, and commitment to improvements and adjustments.

Aim high, move as fast as you can whenever you want. But don’t forget where you’re trying to go and why. Do appreciate the missteps when they occur. But don’t fixate on them. Your social enterprise, your stakeholders, and your impact community can’t afford it.


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