Posts Tagged ‘admitting failure’

Admitting it’s not good enough

The call to be open about failure in development projects has much to be said about it, as I have blogged before. But between success and failure there is a middle ground in which many conservation and development projects cluster. Sometimes acceptance of this result is appropriate; it may not be appropriate to expect rich country levels of achievement in some of the poorest countries. And such compromise is de rigeur in any policy processes, whatever a country’s level of economic development.

But when it comes to project implementation I think that too often we are too ready to accept this half-baked mediocrity, write up our ‘success’ reports and move on. Unfortunately short term papering over of the cracks can lead to long term failure, although by that point usually the main protagonists have long since moved on. Many times this takes the form of an initially successful project that has been poorly scaled up into a programme that grinds on for years based on its initial fanfare, before eventually donors get tired off the lack of progress and pull the plug, often one at a time so it limps on for quite a while with ever-diminishing financial support. My guess is that this kind of failure rarely even gets noticed as anything other than a sense of regret amongst those who were involved that so much early promise should amount to so little in the end.

But sometimes the failure can be more dramatic, such as the drastic short-comings both morally and militarily that have been brutally exposed in the Malian army over the last 12 months, despite years of capacity building from the US previously. Todd Moss laments the tendency to see those policies and results through rose-tinted glasses. I’m no military man, but allow me to guess a little at what might have happened: the junior officers on the ground would have reported the good start they made whilst making their reservations clear that there was a long way to go. These reservations were subsequently air-brushed out by senior officials and politicians keen to declare success and move on. Doh!

The even bigger difficulty occurs when that conversation needs to take place across the cultural boundary. How do you tell the local partner that while their efforts are nice and appreciated they do not, ultimately, deliver on the requirements? That technically their output is lacking a necessary level of sophistication? Arrogance does not become one, and us oh-so-enlightened Westerners are guilty of that far too often. Smooth diplomacy, however, can only get you so far: either you need to accept the product delivered with all its flaws, or you need to risk giving offence in pushing for improvements, whoever is tasked with delivering them.

At this point budget strictures can come into play. Few project designs incorporate budget for doing anything twice (although a contingencies budget can help). So as well as having the courage to reveal the hard truths to local partners one faces the challenge of finding the budget and/or fessing up to the donor how you stumbled. Little wonder then that many project managers opt for the easy way out. A little less neo-colonialism, may come at the cost of a lot less development. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess which outcome the target beneficiaries would prefer.

Before I get deluged in a pile of hate mail, I should point out the big but in this. There is obviously a huge slippery slope starting with robust and honest assessment of technical quality of local partner outputs and descending to rampant neo-colonialism, and at the bottom of which one is likely to find the target beneficiaries having very different views. Alternatively you can just call the bottom of the slope charter cities, on which it seems the jury is still out, and will almost certainly stay out, until one is actually attempted.

I should also like to add that such eventualities as I describe above are not the rule. Many times I have seen excellent outputs produced by local partners. But neither, unfortunately, it is as rare an exception round here as one would like, especially when dealing with quasi-governmental institutions who do not have a meritocratic culture.


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.

With fails like these who needs success?

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.

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