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.