Learning from failure

September 13, 2011 | Manuel Flury | SDC Experiences |


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Manuel picture for sdclanBy Manuel Flury 

Almost ten years back I met with the „SDC AdFin Circle”, the group of financial administrators. These, mostly women experts in financial management of development projects met regularly in order to exchange on many practical aspects of their work. While the majority of them worked at the SDC Head Office, some were deployed to Cooperation Offices in our partner countries. Facilitating the exchange among all was on the agenda of this meeting and I was invited by the financial advisor to talk about practical possibilities of working with an electronic platform. This person wanted to know about possibilities of using an electronic discussion platform. While explaining the pros and cons of web and email based electronic platforms – that time SDC was turning to Bellanet’s Dgroups for hosting such platforms – one of the participants raised the issue as to who might subscribe to the platform. And she continued by saying to my astonishment: “If my boss discovers what question I ask, he might not be happy since I am supposed to know and not to have questions”!
Later I shared this experience with my Canadian friends from Bellanet and we wondered whether we encountered a cultural difference between Switzerland and Canada where he would exclude such a statement.

This experience reminded me at a time when I lived in up-country Kenya, being part of a project team involved in a multi-sector rural development programme involved in water supply, farming and skills development activities and having an applied research branch associated. SDC mandated a consultant to participate in building the concept and in developing appropriate technical and institutional approaches. He travelled to Kenya regularly to review jointly with us the project’s development. We communicated the insights we gained during these reviews to colleagues and superiors at Head Office. We mentioned difficulties and problems that arose mainly in the collaboration with the local Administration. With the support of this “mirroring” consultant we identified appropriate solutions to problems we encountered and created a spirit of positive criticism among us. It was only during the visit of a senior thematic advisor from the Head Office when we learnt, that our self-criticism created an impression of a failed project, without recognizing the learning that grew out of our exchanges. This image stuck to the project, even in the memory of colleagues from that time.
The one half of the lesson I learnt: Do communicate critical issues and failed attempts watchfully, talk about successes. The other one: Following the first half of the lesson, nobody would have learnt from our failures! And the success stories would have created a wrong impression!

It is all about “trust”

Throughout SDC’s knowledge management initiatives, we considered trust as the key feature of a learning organization that accepts as well failures. “Learning from failures” was part of the common wisdom in the Knowledge for Development Community. And still what we realized: sharing of knowledge concentrated on successes and good practices mainly, failures have rarely been fancy! So, building on an atmosphere of trust among collaborators may build a culture of failures and of improving.

It was only during a peer exchange session in a training centre for agricultural professionals when a colleague from a well-known reinsurance enterprise said: “Trust you can build only between two people, beyond such a small team, trustful relations are rare.”
The third lesson I learnt: Trust needs to be created and it is worth it.

Individual and institutional trust

If trust is basic to sharing failures and learning from them, then building a culture of learning from failure within the organization would require building trust first. I propose to differentiate between:

I.     INDIVIDUAL – Trust in other people and, thus, building trustful interpersonal relations.
II.    INSTITUTIONAL – Trust in the organization, its rules and regulations and in its ability to
function, thus building its trustworthiness.

I have introduced these two aspects in a blog related to learning in times of organizational change: Learning from failures as an organization requires the possibility of units and teams to open up and be transparent. The organization provides the necessary framework including monitoring, evaluation and reporting procedures and corresponding management responses. Unless the organization acknowledges failures in an explicit manner and rewards them, success stories will prevail. This might at best result in a competition among units and teams about successes.

Learning from failures as an organization is as well basic to dealing with complex situations such as the ones a development agency encounters in promoting societal change. Where manifestations of social change cannot be attributed to a particular cause, failed interventions cannot be avoided from the onset. Reviewing failures and reacting to them becomes part of a standard (programme management) practice.

For us as individuals, learning from failures requires the trustful atmosphere of mutual acceptance. The working team may provide the space and energy for such relationship. The performance talks (MAP talks) might as well serve this purpose.

Promoting learning even from failures includes:

  • having trust among individuals being built within teams and units;
  • rewarding units and teams for critically reflecting on failed action;
  • creating competition between units and teams on success stories;
  • accepting that failures in complex situations are unavoidable;
  • and: refrain from bureaucratic obligations to do one or the other since bureaucracy kills trust.

To conclude
Learning from failure is both a prerogative for learning and improving, in particular for development agencies that are working within complex societal change processes. Learning from failure as well requires a framework that provides the necessary environment for trustful relations among individuals and critical reflection among teams. Learning from failure is not just a knowledge management fad but an obligation for wise management.

And a reality check
Admitting Failure Website
This is a new site that aims to help charities around the globe share, reflect upon and learn from the mistakes they’ve made. This site is an open space for development professionals who recognize that the only “bad” failure is one that’s repeated. Failure can be ‘great’, but only to those who are willing to share their missteps to ensure they don’t happen again. Of course it is not an encouragement to fail, it’s about an attitude to do good really good.
The Engineers Without Borders are professional engineers, students, overseas volunteer staff, and supporters across Canada. As part of their accountability endeavour they publish their annual Failure Reports (Failure Report 2011). Learning from failures becomes part of their business model.


Comments to“Learning from failure”

  1. Manuel Etter says:

    I very much agree that individual and institutional trust as well as openness to admit failures (what a great idea to create an Admitting Failure website!), are key factors for learning.

    An aspect not to be forgotten within the “trust topic” is “openness versus confidentiality”. Development actors are usually under enormous pressure to communicate successes and impacts in order convince their constituency that money is well invested. Negative publicity (news about failures…) may cause serious political, financial or personnel damages.

    Many institutions therefore have developed a defensive or prohibitive approach towards open discussions of failures. Keeping discussions on failures purely internal is certainly not the right way out of this dilemma. But I assume that some guidance (not instructions) for the practitioners on how to discuss critical issues such as failures outside the institutions, e.g. on open platforms, might be adequate and helpful, both for the practitioners to feel more confident and for the institution to further build the institutional trust.


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