Failback Loops

“Embrace Failure” blogs and failure-focused meet-ups are often formulaic: cite some examples of people who frequently failed (Edison, Ford, Einstein, and Michael Jordan are perennial favorites), opine about the culture of risk and failure that powers innovation, then distinguish between ‘good failure’ and ‘bad failure,’ preferably with wise words like these from a 2014 Fast Company article: “Yes, failure is part of entrepreneurship, but we still need to be careful about not just labeling all failures as equally ‘useful.’ Some are true learning opportunities born of a disciplined innovation and experimentation process; others are the outcomes of very poor decision making.”

What is lacking in most reflections on failure is a rigorous analytical breakdown of the mistakes at each stage of the project lifecycle, and practical advice on how organizations can build constructive conversations about failure into their operations. During the design phase, projects are set up for failure when business-planning principles are ignored. Partners and beneficiaries must be able to understand, acquire, pay for, use, and maintain a solution.  There’s also the small matters of sustainable funding and committed (i.e., incented) stakeholders. Implementation issues are just as perilous. Achieving scale, managing change in multiple partner organizations, and mitigating non-technical challenges are gritty, sweaty endeavors that can easily be derailed by market shifts, infighting among partners or government agencies, or basic infrastructure shortcomings. It’s tough to get any work done when the lights keep going out.

Development organizations can avoid repeated blunders by taking a phase-oriented approach that looks at an implementation from end-to-end and across programs, rather than cherry-picking problems that obscure the linkage between design and execution. For example, holding a post-mortem when a project (or phase) concludes, and sharing insights with everyone in the organization, should be routine. Insights and processes from current and past implementations can inform staffing and budgeting decisions for new projects – but only if the implementation and design teams are talking. Similarly, project teams can identify “red light” partners in local governments (i.e., without them, the project will fail), and this can be built into future proposals. Codifying a set of standard operating procedures on how to constructively learn from failure, incorporating them in onboarding processes, and repeatedly referencing them during projects will strengthen institutional memory and improve both planning and execution. No one in an organization – from executives to junior level managers – wants to admit they’ve invested time, effort, or treasure on a losing proposition. But to tweak the old adage, “Fail me once, shame on you. Fail me twice, shame on me.”

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