When admitting failure isn’t enough

There have been some great posts on the second aid blog forum on admitting failure.  Many bloggers picked up, as I like to think I did, on the fact that admitting failure is just one aspect of lesson learning (another tautological piece of yucky aid jargon), that we all ought to be doing as a matter of course. David Week called attention to this better than anyone, demolishing admitting failure as just another management fad. (I find it hard to disagree with him, but reckon admitting failure has so much more humility than your average management fad, that I’m prepared to give it the time of day.)

In particular, David examined the failure reports by Engineers Without Borders, the poster child for admitting failure in aid projects. In doing so he highlighted the limitation that I had suggested, that failures identified and admitted were unlikely to be central to an organisation’s work, but focus on relatively peripheral elements. David dissected an entry in EWB’s 2009 failure report. To paraphrase: he showed that while the EWB volunteer had successfully identified that things had gone wrong, and that the project would not be sustainable, she had failed to identify that the real problem lay in the fact that the whole project design was fundamentally unsustainable in the first place.* Or as I suggested in the comments: EWB is exposed as a glorified volunteer monger. Maybe one of the best volunteer monger’s out there, but a volunteer monger nonetheless.

EWB’s Erin Antcliffe responded in the comments and an excellent little debate developed, spreading to Twitter.** Now don’t get me wrong; I have followed several EWB volunteer blogs over time. I love their questioning approach and courage to face up to failure. Without ever having been near one of their projects, I nonetheless imagine they might just be the best volunteer monger in the world. And if their initiative to get aid and development organisations to similarly face up publicly to their failures catches on, then, regardless of David Week’s and others’ reservations, I think they’ll have done the world a big favour.

But, will their project design process have changed? Will they have learned the most important lesson from their failures? I can see this how might be difficult, because it appears fundamental to how the organisation works.

Often times in this blog I have contrasted how the topsy-turvy world of aid differs from that of business. (As have many others wiser than me!) This appears to be another such example. If you came up with a great new business idea, you could give it a good go, but if, whatever your original genius, it failed to deliver you would find out pretty quickly and the company would collapse. Alas the absence of good feedback loops in aid means that as long as you can convince the donors to keep on donating (and the volunteers signing up), you can go on indefinitely regardless of what you actually deliver.

It’s hard enough to admit failure in the first place. It’s even harder to admit that you might actually be the problem. And what matter most is what you do after you’ve admitted failure.

* This raises an important point. It is not enough simply to admit failure. One then needs to correctly diagnose the cause. This is not always easy!

** You can now follow me on there too: @bottmupthinking. Don’t count on too regular tweeting.


4 responses to this post.

  1. […] Blogroll « When admitting failure isn’t enough […]


  2. […] failure fad Bottom Up Thinking’s MJ argues that the development industry’s growing penchant for admitting failure is a good thing but is unconvinced that this newfound humility has so far actually led to any […]


  3. […] Project failure is far too common in conservation and development for anyone’s comfort. Many agencies and practitioners regrettably seek to hide their poor records behind euphemism and by redefining success radically downwards after that fact. Last year an aid bloggers forum considered the question of admitting failure although the consensus was not very positive (see my two contributions: here and here). […]


  4. […] helpful or harmful? Are all the same? EWB has tried hard to admit their failures, but is it enough? A ton of good can be done in a week by groups of professionals like doctors and engineers- but how […]


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