This is a contribution to the second aid blog forum on admitting failure in aid projects. Several contributors have already pointed out the challenges of admitting failure in the first place, and I don’t want to pooh pooh their very real concerns. But I also think this is an idea whose time might be just around the corner. Once the ground has been broken by a few brave NGOs and supportive donors there could suddenly be a big rush, all in the name of marketing. It could come de rigeur to admit to at least a few failures.
All very wonderful, but I worry that a lot of it’s going to be rather superficial. As Marc Bellemare points out, in admitting failure, on one level all we’re really doing is showing that we are sufficiently self-critical to do so, and thus earn more kudos for self-criticism than we lose for the odd failure. This reminds me of those long application forms for graduate level jobs and questions such as ‘Name three weaknesses you have.’ No graduate worth their salt is going to confess that they don’t get on well with other people, but instead will say things like ‘can be a bit impulsive from time to time’ which can be almost turned into a positive.
Similarly, no NGO is going to admit that big chunks of their work is a complete failure. Instead, like the example given by Tom Murphy, they’re going to contrast their failure with a success (thus emphasising the value of the success story) and/or pick on relatively minor elements of their work. Of course this is just what you’d expect from human nature, and sensible management. Nobody wants to do a Ratner!
On the flip side of the coin, I would expect this to be a reasonable reflection of reality in well run organisations. Such organisations should be capable of spotting when they’re heading for failure on a major programme and devote the management time to turning things around. That’s what adaptive management, the mark of a good development project just as it is the mark of good business management, is all about. Thus the failures ought to be peripheral; where senior staff just took too long to become apprised of the trap into which they were about to fall. A good organisation should also be able extricate themselves from any such traps. Indeed admitting failure then just becomes another element of the lesson learning process that an effective organisation should be going through internally anyway. (Thus arguably admitting failure is simply exposing that process to the outside world.)
The trouble is that a lot of what goes on in development does not appear to me to be that well run. (On average I’d say the quality of management in NGOs is probably better than other parts of the aid world, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.) Will these less well run organisations, programmes and projects have the courage to admit they made much bigger failures? I fear not. Just ask the leading advocates of the Millennium Villages Project!
That all said, I can see a big potential win here if admitting failure really takes off. Because for all the lack of self-criticism in the aid world, I think it is worse in developing country governments. So if self-criticism became that much more mainstream, then there is a chance that it might percolate across the institutional boundaries. I’m not overly optimistic on this point, but it is certainly worth the attempt.
To conclude, I would have failed myself if readers of this post came away with a negative impression of the growing fad for publicly admitting failure in development projects. I think it is an excellent innovation, and I hope it catches on. A little more humility from the big aid players would be no bad thing any way. Just expect a certain degree of superficiality and turning negatives into positives along the way, because that’s just human nature.