KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Confessions of a #failfaire presenter

with 2 comments

Last week organized another successful failfaire in New York, kindly hosted by the US Fund for UNICEF.

I remember attending the first ever failfaire back in April 2010, and writing a brief blog about some of the things I thought made the event successful.

But this time around I attended as a presenter rather than only as an audience member so I wanted to share a few quick impressions of what that’s like. I presented a case study on our fist attempt at developing a technology platform for communities of practice using Drupal which I described briefly in this previous blog post.

This is just my own feelings about the event which may differ from other presenters and attendees, but I don’t apologize for that.

So what’s it like?

1. It’s nerve-wracking – I always get a little nervous before a presentation, but this time particularly so. In addition to the usual reasons to be nervous I also found myself wondering “Is this a good enough example of failure?, are there really some useful lessons in there to share? will admitting I made these (often quite obvious) mistakes make me look stupid?, who’s in the audience and how will they react to this admission of failure?”

2. It’s exhilarating – once you get started actually being up there and letting it all out feels like a great relief, at least when  you get a positive or sympathetic response from the audience. You don’t often get a chance to talk about what went wrong, and there is a great sense of solidarity that you can actually get up there and do this.

3. Humour saves you –  I found it easier to soften the blow of talking about the mistakes I made (and those I also implied that others made) if I could make fun of them and myself – it helped ease the tension for me and probably for the audience too (at least if they laugh).

4. Autoadvance is your friend. I think the “Ignite style” auto-advance worked well for this type of presentation to keep things moving, and keeping it short overall. I’m sure if I’d have had control over the timer I’d have waffled much more and the presentation would have been less effective. I also think that less detail, with just the minimum context needed and a focus on the main lessons is probably the most effective way to convey fails and to keep your audience.

5. Failure is nuanced – but it doesn’t always come across that way. What’s clear to me is that just as we normally upsell our “successes” in regular reports and presentations, in Faifaire we accentuate the failures. In reality few projects are either epic successes or failures and have elements of both – but to tell a good story we make things more black and white – that’s OK as long as we recognize what we are doing. Chris Fabian wrote a great post about this from his own presentation at Failfaire which highlights also that failure can be more subtle than a failed project – but it’s a challenge to present a nuanced argument and not have the audience hear it more in black and white, especially when complex organizational dynamics are the topic of discussion.

6. Failure should lead to success. What I didn’t do in my presentation which some others did do is to show how the lessons learned from the initial failure were used to make future projects more successful. I know we did learn a lot from our first failure but unfortunately I failed to cover this. This might have been a mistake since the real value of the failure is not the fail itself, and not even the analysis of what went wrong, but the successful application of the lessons in the future – this is be something that deserves greater focus in our “celebrations” of failure.

7. Pick your audience. I’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to advocate for an internal failfaire in UNICEF for some time. This time around I had the possibility to repeat my presentation at a smaller internal “brown bag” lunch within UNICEF which included a smaller sub-group of the Wednesday night presenters in order to try to explain/promote the concept in house. I declined – partly perhaps because I’m no longer with UNICEF but partly also perhaps out of fear that my (former) peers would be judging me and that they would not be as sympathetic/forgiving as the failfaire audience. This made me realize that in some ways it can be harder to do an internal failfaire inside an organization which still struggles with admitting failure than to do an event with peers from different organizations who voluntarily step up to share.

In conclusion – it was great – I’d certainly do it again, and recommend it to others. You will be nervous – but it’s worth it. And if more of us could admit we’ve made mistakes and show how we can and have learned from them then there’s much greater chance that we won’t keep making the same mistakes over and again.

Congratulations to Katrin and team, and to all my fellow presenters for another great event.

(P.S. A good summary of the event is available on the failfaire site here: as is a nice  guide to organizing your own event:


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 20, 2011 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Ian, thanks for the post, I enjoyed it and in particular the last point on internal fail-faires. It made me stop and think for a bit about my own experience. The difficulties you point out are probably similar to those that make it much easier to tell a bartender about problems with you wife than to discuss the ‘fails’ with her 🙂

    Seriously now, I wonder if there is any place where development fails could be documented and organized. IMHO, it would be a great resource for anyone working in the sector, and where many folks would probably contribute (it would just require a small individual effort). With some elements of a code of conduct (ie. whether to name individuals or entities, respecting confidential info, etc), it would provide a simple, safe and effective learning platform.

    Manuel Acevedo

    December 20, 2011 at 9:28 am

  2. […] jQuery("#errors*").hide(); window.location= data.themeInternalUrl; } }); } – Today, 4:27 […]

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