Failure without borders
We all make mistakes.
Some of the most valuable life lessons come from the significant mistakes and hard knocks we take. In the business world it’s often said that the successful entrepreneur is someone who has persevered through a lot of failures.
The aid world not so much.
There are many reasons it’s hard to admit failure if you are in the aid world. We believe that our donors will not fund us if we admit fallibility. We believe we can’t afford to fail if we are using public money. Our reporting structures and tools encourage us to upsell our achievements and downplay our failures. Receiving funding is often seen as a big sign of success (and on this scale I must admit to failing big), and perhaps understandably your pilot project will only attract scaled-up funding if it is a success.
Yet, if we don’t admit our failures, then how can we learn from them, and stop repeating or worse avoid continuing them while telling the world they are successful when they are, in reality, flawed. And how can you try to innovate and tackle emerging problems if you are afraid to fail.
There are a few hopeful signs of change:
Engineers Without Borders (EWB) just launched this excellent website admittingfailure.com at their recent annual conference. This is a site where organizations can share their aid related stories of failure. EWB, GlobalGiving and the Peace Dividend Trust have all committed to entering examples and I hope more organizations will choose to do so to.
EWB have already set a good example through their annual failure report where they list some of their notable failures over the past year. This practice was also recently adopted by the Dividend Peace Trust who issued their first failure report this year.
Early last year Mobile Active created a concept known as Fail Faire , and event where ICT for Development practitioners shared their failed projects and what they had learned from them. Here’s a blog I wrote about the event for MobileActive (before I had my own blog). This concept has now been replicated several times with another one on ICT for Development hosted by the World Bank, and other fairs run by Ashoka and the SOCAP (An annual conference on Social Capital markets). MobileActive have also created a handy set of tips on how to organize your own Failfaire.
Let’s hope that more aid agencies will pick up this trend (including my own), and that more donors will support them to do so. And best of luck to all you brave failers – you are the ones that are really creating new knowledge for development.