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Failures as Learning Opportunities

PCDN Global

June 6, 2018

(This is directly sourced from GlobalStakes Consulting blog, www.globalstakesconsulting.com. For more blog posts on this and related issues, please subscribe to our monthly newsletter.)


When we fail in our organizations, companies, and as individuals, there is a tendency to hide it as it is embarrassing, deflating, and ultimately hurts the ego. But if this not a  life and death situation, or flying in a commercial plane, or undertaking a heart surgery,  failures should be instructive. Failure should enable us to see that this did not work and learn from it in a constructive way. Instead of assigning blame, firing employees or suppliers, or doing a drastic radical action, it is important to get the lessons and move on.

In international development and community development, there are tons of mistakes and clear failures that have been made. Some organizations are open about it like coffee houses that are open to anyone who would like a nice coffee.  Some organizations have put in under the rug and kept quiet because of fear that if funders and donors would find out, they are dead ducks. But to be honest with you, this is an extreme situation. The lack of funders support is not about that you have made a mistake or failed in the projects funded, it's because either it is an unwinnable pursuit in the face of evidence in  the first place, or second because of  unethical, dishonest, and other practices that prove misaligned to their fundamental principles and values. Great funders do not pull out because of failures. They actually encourage experimentation and creative problem-solving.

It is important that lessons learned are encouraged including great failures and mistakes. What happens in many conversations and roundtables is that, they pat each other in the back that everything is going well, but, these are rarely genuine conversations. No one wants to be vulnerable and to be put on the spot on issues that might affect their public image or reputation. What happened is that people discuss what works and did not work? These are discussions that are very much watered down and never instructive. I looked at a lot of evaluations and evaluation findings and my favorite spot is the lessons learned section. While some organizations are truly being honest about their failings and inadequacies, and laying it all bare and dry. Some have not really come up to the integrity test. Again, fear of donors not funding them again or investors going away.

When you cover and hide it,  then you see it repeated in other organizations. They don’t know any better. Some of them have just started a non-profit, put up their first projects in one developing country with the advice of so and so, etc. Nobody has told them. There is no book that gives light. There were textbooks in the policies and politics of aid but there are no books on the practices that work and the basics of doing good. Conversations in the sector are more fluff than actually useful.


Like other sectors that embrace failure or integrate failure constructively in their learning and evaluation eco-systems, it is high time to put failures in their best light. As the wise adage says, the wise person is that one that learns from someone’s mistakes and doesn’t have to make it himself/herself. Let’s share our failures the way we do with our successes. Let’s make it a conversation piece next time we talk about innovation, results, and impact.



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