Food Security and Nutrition Network

'F' is for Failure.

'F' is for Failure.

Posted by ysongowilliams on 9 Feb 2017

We just finished off quite an honest discussion on ‘Learning from Failure’ at the February 9th KMTF meeting with guest speakers Vidhya Sriram and April Thompson. April and Vidhya helped frame a surprisingly candid discussion on how we identify and learn from failure by sharing their organizations' experiences; thank you both once again for your insights.

Traditionally, as practitioners in this field, we have been quick to shout out our successes from the highest rooftops; whilst glossing over those initiatives that haven’t worked quite as well…

 It is painful to admit that we have not met our set project objectives, and we worry about the reaction from donors, competitors and peers. We sometimes even feel personally responsible and embarrassed when ‘our’ development initiative does not achieve its intended results. Judging by a poll during this event, many of us still fear (perhaps without true cause?) that in our world, failure could easily mean not being considered in next year's aid budget.

Faced with all this, it is no wonder that to many of us, failure often does not feel like the awesome learning opportunity that we all KNOW it should be!

During the meeting we discussed several practical strategies for ensuring that we use these lessons from failure to strengthen the results of our work.  My favorite three:

  • Embrace failure! Hard to do (and somewhat trite), but so true. Resist the temptation to play the blame game and focus your efforts on the process/situation. Work towards understanding what happened and why, instead of focusing on who made it happen. Get all team members engaged and make sure you have the right people in the room, so that you get valuable input from all relevant perspectives. 
  • Become a ‘Failure Champion!’ In your day-to-day work, create opportunities to ensure that learning from failure is on your organization’s agenda. Work with Senior Management to create a safe space for identifying and learning from failure. Repeatedly.
  • Finally: Go forth and conquer!  Now that you’ve recognized where and how things went wrong, use this knowledge to review and evaluate your planning, preparation and activities. Use pre-mortem information about all the potential pitfalls to inform realistic work planning. Use regular ‘Pause and Reflect’ opportunities across the work cycle to leverage learning.  And definitely use this hard-won knowledge to create stronger and more innovative initiatives.

What are some of the techniques you have used to navigate that challenging space between a tough failure and using those lessons from it effectively? Please share your experiences.

framing up failure

Posted by EEPiepgras on 15 Feb 2017

I'm curious to hear people's experiences and perspectives on using the word failure at their organization or if instead it is framed up a different way, e.g. lessons learned or something else. We didn't get a chance to discuss this aspect in our small group and ran out of time before bringing it up to the large group.  How does your organization frame it and does it get the results you desire? 

Keep it focused on learning

Posted by ejanoch on 15 Feb 2017

This is a conversation we have at CARE all the time, and are regularly looking at ways to get this more into the conversation.  We've even started monthly "Fail Forward" talks, where people present on challenges they face. One of the things we've found at CARE that help us be honest about failure about focusing not on the failure, but on the learning.  Some tricks I use a lot are:

  • Measure Impact: If we can be very data-driven, it takes a lot of the personal sting out of saying that something's not working. Routinely checking in our data and M&E results moves the conversation from "you did it wrong" to "how can we improve our impact? how do we deliver the best possible results for the people we serve?"  Our staff are hugely committed to the mission, so this is a conversation everyone can get behind.
  • Cultivate Solidarity: Thinking about the group, rather than the person. We run enough projects in enough places that we can pull back and look at trends, rather than any single project or staff member. Focusing on trends not only makes it safer to speak up (and less personal), but also helps us identify changes we need to make in the whole system. It also gives people a built-in support group of people who are all trying to solve the same challenge.
  • Create Solutions: Failure conversations work a lot better when we say "where can we go next" instead of stopping at "where did we go wrong." It's not celebrating failure, it's learning how to move forward.
  • Use Leaders: April said it in her presentation, and so did Yemisi in her comments: tone at the top matters.  Our first Failing Forward speakers all came from our executive team to reinforce the culture of safety around failure.
  • Change Course: People will talk about failures if they can see that it matters.  If having the failure conversation helps them solve a problem, they are more likely to do it again.  If it simply results in another meeting, they will disengage.  Being adaptive is critical to a culture of learning.

Thank you Ellen and Emily.

Posted by ysongowilliams on 16 Feb 2017

Thank you Ellen and Emily.

Ellen: that is a really interesting thought! Does anyone have any experience with calling failure by any other name? And does that make the reality of not meeting an objective, or whatever other challenge, any more acceptable? 

I have to admit: we do tend to go with ‘lessons learned;’ and I think that helps create a safer space for us to dig deep and  figure out what went wrong and what we can do to correct it; i.e. make it action-oriented.

Emily: your first three tips not only focus on the learning, but are also really great for reducing the stigma attached to ‘failure,’ by focusing the conversation on measurement of impact, creating new learning and subsequently using this to improve.  Really useful!

Great thoughts, Yemisi, Ellen

Posted by atodela on 22 Feb 2017

Great thoughts, Yemisi, Ellen and Emily!

To add on to the conversation, I want to put a spotlight on one of my increasingly favorite things to do after a knowledge sharing event or training: the After Action Review (AAR).

Anyone who has been involved in the technical and/or logistical design of an event knows how incredibly complex and rigorous the preparations are to be able to flawlessly carry it out. But outside factors come in, and most of the time, flawless becomes flawed, even for a little. You can call them failures, flaws, issues, challenges, or kinks, but in general they are things that did not work or have negatively affected the event. I think what is more important is that there is acknowledgement that things either did not go as planned or were missed. This is where the AAR comes in handy because it gives you that space to comprehensively talk about what happened, the successes and failures, and what can be done to continue or further the successes and improve the event design to avoid the kinks for the next one. The action-oriented review convenes all those part of the design process, lets them analyze these challenges and transform them into lessons learned, which means those kinks will ideally get resolved for the next go round.

It is also helpful to document the AAR so that for when it’s time to start planning for the next event or training, you can readily refer to your notes. 

Failure by another name - not as impactful

Posted by scrass on 1 Mar 2017

World Vision held its first virtual FailFest last year.  Settling on that name... that has the "other" 4-letter F word... was a "lively" discussion.  We are a global organisation...100 countries... and the word "fail" was feared to have too much stigma.  "Can't we call it LearningFest?"  No!!!  Despite the protest, we pushed through and said we did need to use the Fail word.  Our after-action review did show that several offices were challenged to participate because fail and shame are too closely intertwined.  However, we got applauded by many offices saying this was a good direction for our organisation to move... this is a barrier we need to tackle.  Will we change the name?  No.  Are we approaching the cultural discussions around failure and how we can address it - yes!  (on a side note... this will be the focus of my talk at next month's APQC KM Meeting!)

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