The F-Word

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“Don’t even mention losing to me. I can’t stand to think of it” – Bobby Fisher.

Bobby Fisher is certainly not alone in this sentiment. Failure is not fun – and discussing it honestly in public sounds excruciating. Put this in the context of NGOs for whom failure often results in damaging repercussions on funding, and we arrive at a situation in which the word “failure” is rarely mentioned.

However, most would agree that failure often precedes innovation and can teach us things that successes cannot. Talking about failure openly is the first step towards learning from it. More and more foundations and organizations have begun to encourage avenues to share and celebrate failure, including publishing Failure Reports and holding Fail Fests. However, we cannot stop at this.

Just like enrollment in school doesn’t necessarily translate to learning outcomes, getting people together to talk about failure does not necessarily mean they are learning from it. While encouraging discussion on failure, we also have to look at how we can ensure this conversation is meaningful.

8 Ways to get more out of failure

  • Partnering with Philanthropists

Speaking on a panel about failure, “When things don’t go according to plan” at the Dasra Social Impact Forum (DSIF) this year, Mathew Spacie, founder of Magic Bus, described how in Magic Bus’ experience, admitting to challenges actually resulted in funders being more supportive! Yet, Magic Bus’s experience is not necessarily representative – a poll of the 150 NGOs who attended the session revealed that 79% believed NGOs shy away from discussing failure for fear of losing funding. Clearly, there is a trust deficit between NGOs and philanthropists – perhaps arising from the significant power imbalance between them.

NGOs and philanthropists need to make a concerted effort to develop a relationship where organizations feel comfortable discussing their challenges and asking for support. The philanthropist should play the role of a partner not a customer!

  • Organization Culture

Organizations need to cultivate an internal culture of reacting to failure with reflection, critical examination and execution of solutions rather than with pointing of fingers. Top Management leading by example and discussing failures at periodic reviews can go a long way. Without establishing the right culture, we run the risk of discussions around failure being superficial.

  • Define Success (and by corollary, failure)

We cannot learn from a failure we don’t know occurred. Having clear definitions of what success would look like helps to objectively analyze results when these don’t materialize and prevents the temptation to rationalization and term a less than effective program a success. 

  • Categorize Projects based on risk

While a culture that disallows any failure is unrealistic and can suppress innovation, one that seems to encourage it may raise concerns about accountability. In this context, it is important to acknowledge that as articulated in a 2011 HBR article, “Not All failures are created equal”.

Identifying projects that are experimental (rather than predictable) allows us set different definitions for success, failure and monitoring for such projects. These projects may also need donors comfortable with the high risk-high reward equation they bear and can be pitched accordingly. Further, the consequences for failure on such projects can be negotiated in advance.

This would promote accountability while also encouraging innovation.

  • Understand what failed, why and consider how it could have been avoided

We cannot avoid repeating a mistake unless we can pin it down in the first place. Programs that fail in their entirety are rare. Conducting a root cause analysis to understand which parts worked, which parts did not and the reasons for the failure is important to be able to translate these learnings to the next project.

  • Treat the cause not the symptoms

Now that we have identified what went wrong, we can fix it! Of course, that’s easier said than done. Even in the capital markets, where there are literally hundreds of books and seminars about the most common mistakes investors make, investors repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Looking beyond the immediate specific failure, to identify the fundamental issues that allowed these failures to occur can give us a better chance of avoiding repeating our mistakes.

  • Seek stories of failure

While it is relatively easier to learn from your own mistakes, learning from others’ mistakes requires some more effort! As David Damberger of Engineers without Borders discusses in a TEDx Talk, different international aid groups make the same mistakes over and over again. In the information age, it is easy to get lost in all the data flying around. People can talk themselves hoarse at Fail Fests and publish reams and reams of Failure Reports but if we don’t actively look for past failures before starting a new project we may repeat them anyway.

  • Failure Patterns

Each failure is unique and each project and the context in which it operates is also unique. Unless we train ourselves to create mental models and recognize failure patterns, it will be difficult to integrate and transfer learnings across sectors and geographies quickly.

If we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to do all we can to ensure we work effectively and efficiently towards them. Learning from our mistakes and moving swiftly to correct them could play a big role in this. If we talk about failure ‘better’, perhaps that will also feed into a more conducive environment to talk about failure more and learn from it faster.

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Janani is part of Dasra’s Knowledge Creation & Dissemination team, Janani conducts pre-investment diligence on impactful and scalable non-profit organizations with the aim of deepening the impact of philanthropic capital. In the past she has worked n investment research in India Capital Markets.