Monday, November 19, 2012

Celebrating Failure – Again, and Again

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO

Hans Fraeters from World Bank on Failure
Photo Credit: ICT4D Social Enterprise
This year, for the second time, I attended and was a speaker at Fail Faire. As I noted in a blog post last year, this is both a remarkable and very important event. Its objective is to celebrate failure, not something anyone likes to admit, particularly in our international development community, and especially around ICT4D (Information Communications Technology for Development) efforts.

The presenters cheerfully (or making the effort to be) highlight projects which they have led and which have been total failures. The idea is to “bare it all.” So while the tone is irreverent and fun (I suppose to make the pain of sharing your darkest secrets more bearable), there are some serious players behind this effort, including the World Bank, which has been hosting it for 3 years. The DC FailFaire is organized by the always energetic and articulate Wayan Vota, from Development Gateway. Highly entertaining and very well-attended (more than 150 people showed up on a Friday night at the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) auditorium – let me repeat: on a Friday night!), this year’s event did not disappoint.

We must share our learnings from Failure - Tessie San Martin
Photo Credit: ICT4D Social Enterprise
Having the CEO of Plan USA participate in such an event makes my marketing and communications colleagues very nervous. But I am committed to continuing to be vocal, and at times also a bit outrageous, about the need to celebrate failure. Why? Because addressing poverty, child trafficking, malnutrition, illiteracy, cannot be solved by “playing it safe.” Improving the lives of children around the world requires imagination, innovation, and experimentation. And all the experimentation in the world will not be of use if we are not able to learn, from both failures and successes. And hence…the Fail Faire, and Plan’s support of this event.

But the Fail Faire is not enough in my view. I worry, as I stated in this event, that the International NGO (INGO) community is not structurally fit for purpose, when it comes to failing, and to learning from those failures. Why?
  1. “Many ideas, but few effective sharing platforms.” As I have noted elsewhere, the international development industry is quite robust. Barriers to entry are low, making it relatively easy for anyone with passion and ideas to establish an NGO and begin to mobilize energy, volunteers, resources around specific issues and causes. This is terrific, in my view. It means more competition and more ideas. But it is worth very little if we have no/few effective mechanisms for collecting, processing, analyzing and feeding back information, and if we do not have the feedback loops required to make sure we are learning from all this innovation (and presumably failure).

    By the way, what I have described as characterizing the international development industry also applies to federations like Plan (and Plan itself). Plan’s strength is that it is highly decentralized. This has led to a great deal of entrepreneurial and innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. But Plan has not, until now, been investing sufficiently in effective feedback and sharing mechanisms. We are getting much better at this, but we are not quite there. Why do we in Plan (and the INGO community) underinvest in knowledge sharing? Good segue into my second point….

  2. “It is all about the mission”…and “no one signed up for risk.” A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that since 1970 the number of nonprofits in the US that have crossed the $50 million a year budget threshold is only 144. The number of for-profits that have crossed that line during the same period is over 46,000. Why? This could be an entire dissertation. But let me focus on what I think are a couple of big reasons. One is that our own mission orientation may “get in the way.” We are (for good reason) so focused on getting as much of the money to the field (in Plan’s case, to the children) as possible that we put off investments in systems and structural modernization, technologies and staff. Eventually, this catches up with us. We become less efficient; the lack of investment becomes a real constraint to growth. This happened to our organization. We put off modernizing our IT infrastructure until the old system literally shackled us.

    A second reason is that to grow, you need to take risks; you have to dare to experiment. And you have to be willing to live with failure. In the for-profit world, there is no huge stigma attached to going for broke and perhaps going belly-up. Your investors and partners, even your staff, signed up for a journey that they knew included risk. And if there was risk, there was reward. This is not really the case in the non-profit side. We are not promising our donors – or our staff - riches but rather impact. We mobilize resources because we tell our donors we know the way to improving lives. We are not built, or capitalized, to fail. So, when it comes to failure, we will talk the talk, but we are far less enthused about walking the talk.
What all this tells me is that we need to be more honest with ourselves and more honest with our donors. And as we do so, all of us -- INGOs, our partners, and our donors -- should be mindful that there is a mismatch between what development requires (innovation, risk-taking, flexibility) and what increasingly donors are looking for (tightly-packaged projects, clear deliverables, clear metrics of success). Our structures and our very culture do not facilitate, incent, or even allow failure, let alone learning from failure. These structural impediments can be fixed, but first we need to recognize we have a problem.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Tessie. I agree with all your points.
    I believe there is another characteristic of development agencies, perhaps more mundane, that constrains learning. It is that: development agencies don't support staff learning about how the projects and policies they have been involved with worked out.
    Back in 2002, SIDA (Sweden's aid agency) funded Elinor Ostrom and a team of researchers to look into this issue with respect to their operation and projects. Yes, THAT Elinor Ostrom...who would go on to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 2009. They found that SIDA had many structural factors that made it difficult (well, impossible really) for their staff to learn from their projects:
    - staff rotate too quickly to learn directly
    - rarely have access to info from last assignments' projects
    - too many temporary staff.
    And, there was no recognition of staff in case they did learn, and thereby performed better in terms of improving the quality of their subsequent projects.
    I took the questions from their study and have been informally surveying staff at...another large aid agency...and have found precisely the same structural problems.
    While I am very happy to see "fail fairs" and the like, it strikes me that until aid agencies make it easier (possible?) for their staff to learn about how well things worked out with their projects (and other types of support)...development assistance quality is unlikely to improve much. NB: When I ask staff this..they almost universally say they would LOVE to have a chance to learn about how things have worked out with their projects and the like. So, I don't even think you have to create much by way of incentives....aid agencies just need to MAKE IT POSSIBLE to learn.
    Here is a link to the main report from the Ostrom SIDA study