Embracing Failure

In project reports and other publications, the focus is usually on the successes – how many people reached, overall impact, changes achieved. Failures, mistakes, or underachievement are often seen and presented as difficulties, challenges, or unforeseen negative effects. They are also often understated or covered up, instead of being acknowledged as failures with clear lessons learned. By not devoting time and other resources to understanding and analysing failures, we risk repeating them, and increasing their impact. Indeed, a failure that is encountered in one project that is not acknowledged more widely at a programme or organisational level may well be repeated in another project.

“Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you fail, you learn what doesn’t work; and second, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach.” – Roger von Oech, American author and inventor

Failure can take many forms, such as a bad idea, ill-formed assumptions, bad timing, lack of or limited resources to accomplish your goals, inappropriate time or place, an unexpected event, or missing information. And when failure happens – and it will happen in some form, the key is to be ready to embrace it in a constructive way. Learning from failure requires contextual awareness, and allows you to correct issues and avoid damaging outcomes down the road.  

This is where knowledge exchange sessions are important, as they allow colleagues from across different departments and projects to share their experiences – including failures – and to offer insights and propose solutions. Having a plan for broadly exchanging failures, incorporating feedback, and communicating lessons learned, can lead to an improved performance organisation-wide. 

Consider the following as you seek to embrace failure:

Acknowledge it 

When a failure arises, resist the urge to address it immediately. Acknowledge it. Take a pause to reflect, absorb and understand why it occurred. Was there an unforeseen event, a change in context, or missing information or knowledge that led to incorrect assumptions? Were there people factors – inadequate training, misaligned objectives, transportation issues, or cultural issues that were not considered?  Take the time to engage in thoughtful reflection and conversation to understand what happened. Make sure you include everybody involved in the project to the extent possible – project team, community members, partners, as well as stakeholders who were not directly involved but may provide a fresh perspective on the situation. 

Keep it in perspective

Keep failures in perspective. International development work is ambitious and complex, and may often take place with a high degree of uncertainty. It is unreasonable to expect that projects conducted in challenging circumstances, addressing changes in behaviour, or seeking to make a significant impact would not encounter challenges or failures along the way, especially when it comes to longer-running projects and programmes and those operating in unstable, emergency or conflict settings.

Engage don’t avoid  

Our instinct might be to cover up, deflect, or otherwise minimise the situation when a failure occurs. Or to stay in our comfort zone and respond by coming up with a less ambitious approach because the first attempt was unsuccessful, thus reducing the possibility of failure the next time. But this is not how we learn from failure. Engaging with failure creates the learning needed to go forward.

Share and document

The learning happens when a failure is shared. Share it internally with your immediate colleagues, your team, department, and other departments at both the program and organisational level – deep dives, knowledge cafes, “fail fests”, or pause-and-reflect sessions are perfect for this. Share it externally with partners and donors – during a meeting, in a project progress or donor report, a failure report, or a case study. Engaging with others can lead to improved solutions, and benefit those outside your immediate team or organisation by providing useful insights that can be applied in other projects and programmes.

Organisations that create and maintain safe spaces to share knowledge support a culture where learning from failure catalyses change. There are many ways to create these spaces. Introducing regular knowledge sharing sessions at project, programme, department, and organisational levels are examples of effective learning practices. While they are a formalised part of your learning process, these activities can be fairly informal and unstructured to allow for freedom of discussion. Organisations can also offer incentives, such as performance metrics, failure awards, and other positive acknowledgements to encourage participation.

The insights, lessons learned, and resulting changes developed through knowledge sharing activities can be of long-term benefit if they are documented as part of the sharing process. Describe the failure, what you learned, and what you changed or plan to change. Consider developing a database and producing a Failure Report (more on this coming soon) documenting your learning.

The key to embracing failure is to change our view of failure from a negative to a positive, to stop seeing failure as a sign of weakness. It is an inevitable part of learning and a culture of knowledge sharing that will open up multiple opportunities for growth.

Contributor: Pamela Hobbs, Senior Knowledge Management Consultant, Consult KM International

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