September 28, 2017

We need to talk about failure

In our sector, we bristle at the thought of speaking openly about and learning from our failures. It’s about time we, as donors and practitioners, changed this. Here’s how we can learn to fail well.

5 min read

‘Failure is not an option’ read the bumper sticker on the rear window of the muscular SUV careening its way through dense Delhi traffic. To say that failure is an undesirable outcome for most people is an understatement. And at the same time there’s a growing body of wisdom that supports the notion that the pathway to success is often paved with failures—they are, in fact, inevitable.

As development practitioners, we are quite privileged. Although we are working on solving some of humankind’s most challenging problems, the resources we have at our disposal usually come with a low expectation on returns and therefore the ability to take big risks.

Given that we’ve been trying to solve these problems for a long time, maybe decades, and given that the resources we have enable us to take risks, we should have had far more failures than successes. And we should have learnt a lot more about what doesn’t work than what does work.

[quote]The fact is, it’s not always possible to assign a definitive point of failure.[/quote] Yet, when we look at the knowledge base in our fields of work—whether it’s health, education, livelihoods, agriculture or sanitation we find that what gets shared and talked about are reams of success stories and best practices. One still needs to look really hard to find cases and people talking about failures and what didn’t work.

Why then are we—as a community—so hesitant to acknowledge and learn from our failures?



Failure isn’t always black and white

First of all, it’s not always easy to know when one has failed. Not only are development initiatives complex and hard to predict, but practitioners have different perspectives on what’s going on.

[quote]Very few proposals and plans actually build in processes for failing and recasting along the way.[/quote] So sometimes you may have a colossal train wreck progressing in slow motion, but the person running the show may still believe ‘it’ll be alright in the end’. In other cases, an intervention may be going through early formative trials and errors, but the manager believes they’ve already hit rock bottom. The fact is, it’s not always possible to assign a definitive point of failure.

Then there’s the question of what really failed, because we can fail at various levels. There’s the failure of ideas, the failure of implementation, and then there’s the human factor. Because we prefer distancing ourselves from failure, it’s perhaps easier to acknowledge a failure in design than a failure in implementation.

Related article: The social sector must recognise and talk about failure

Our systems and incentives are designed to conceal failure

Even when we do talk about failing we resort to language that is cushioned, using words like ‘lessons’ and ‘challenges’. This is because our model of business and our incentives don’t go well with acknowledging failures.

Performance evaluations and career paths are based on achievements and successes. Even the way we write proposals and implementation plans—the core of our business in the development sector—assumes that a linear set of actions over a multi-year period will lead to our desired outcome.

Very few proposals and plans actually build in processes for failing and recasting along the way.  So when things don’t work as planned—as often happens—we don’t have a backup plan or even the space to approach the task differently.

[quote]It is for leaders to signal that talking about and learning from failures is important.[/quote] So while there are many people who will say that donors should have patience, take a long-term view, and commit to funding over an extended period, this thinking may need some tweaking. It may be better to have a shorter-term view, have an implementation plan for say 6 months to a year, and allow for course corrections. A donor could disburse funding in shorter-term tranches while still maintaining a long-term commitment to the programme objectives and to working with the grantee organisation. Alternatively, scenario-based proposals also allow for more flexibility with implementation.

The relationship between accepting failures and being accountable is a tenuous one

It is for leaders to signal that talking about and learning from failures is important. However if they decide to pursue this as a value, they need to be committed to supporting their people and partners in taking risks, failing, and trying again. It’s not always that leaders walk the talk when it comes to handling and supporting those who fail. The negative slip of tongue can easily betray the noblest aspirations.

This inevitably raises the question of whether this approach of accepting failures amounts to no longer holding people accountable for results. While it can become a risky path to take, if managed well there’s a fine balance that can be that can be struck between asking for results and keeping people and partners accountable. It’s possible to give them room to fail in ways that ultimately lead to better overall outcomes.

Failing creates a poor public image

In reality, the notion of failure is not binary, yet that is how it is often perceived by the world. Moreover, our systems encourage success and shun failure. So failing can make nonprofits look bad, which in turn could threaten credibility and eventually choke access to future funding.

Therefore it needs to be packaged well. Larger, reputed organisations might be less open to sharing failures while lesser-known ones, many of which have little to lose because public expectations are low to begin with, might be more willing.

Self-perception also plays a role—nonprofits that pride themselves on being scrappy and non-conforming might be comfortable with talking about what went wrong because it is characteristic of their identity.

Sometimes, we also run the risk of talking about failures for the sake of it. As the ideas of ‘fail fests’, ‘fail forward’ and ‘fail fast’ set into vogue, there may be more and more instances of people looking for failures to talk about, simply to cast themselves as enlightened future thinkers (the author of this article also runs that risk).


So how do we actively learn from our failures? How do we, as a community, fail well?

Talk about failing within and across ‘circles of trust’.
Recognising and discussing failures requires us to navigate different layers, or ‘circles of trust’. The first one is probably acknowledging it to ourselves as a failure. The next is sharing it with our teammates and close colleagues, the next could be donors, collaborators and competitors and finally, broadcasting it within the field at large.

Taking our failures from one layer to the next requires increasing courage; but each journey has value. When we acknowledge failing, we’re ready to learn from the experience. If we share the failure with our colleagues we can seek help in analysing and possibly fixing it. And if we share it broadly within our field, the lessons may improve the learning curve for others. Moreover, we might over time earn a reputation of being a learning organisation.

Related article: Getting the best possible failures in philanthropy

Find the right language, spirit and tone.
Most of the research on failures advises calling it like it is. It’s important to deal with the negative connotation but also accept that there is a positive outcome to find.

Many donors have begun holding ‘Fail fests,’ which encourage participants to talk about what went wrong. The key to having honest and open conversations lies in maintaining a light and forgiving tone. Light enough that people feel comfortable discussing their experiences candidly, yet not so light that the discussion becomes superficial.

[quote]In reality, the notion of failure is not binary.[/quote] The challenge is in preventing people from disguising their failures as eventual successes. With such discussions, we risk reaching a point of diminishing returns. The more we romanticise failure by celebrating it for the ‘show-and-tell’ of how open and courageous we are, the less valuable it is as a learning moment.

Broach the topic from the lens of collective challenges among peers as opposed to individual failures. It creates a safe space for discussion.
You have a better shot at success if you convene a group of peer organisations that are facing similar challenges, and get a neutral third party to facilitate a structured conversation around experiences and solutions.

We are still a long way from talking about what doesn’t work in an honest and constructive manner. Though it will probably take a series of baby steps over time to embed the experience of failure into how we plan and talk about our work, donors can lead the way. We can make changes within our organisations and reporting requirements, and signal to our grantees that learning from what doesn’t work is just as important as focusing on what does.

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Anand Sinha-Image
Anand Sinha

Anand is the country advisor for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in India. He has over two decades of experience in reproductive, maternal and child health in India and has worked closely with both private sector and public sector partnership initiatives. Before joining the Packard foundation he worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation leading their integrated health initiative in Bihar, and prior to that as the country manager for Abt Associates.