Looking Back to Step Forward

Consider the following thought experiment:

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Operation 1 (the melting ice cube) –

Imagine an ice cube and consider how it may melt over the next two hours while you surf around the internet. Try to envision the shape of the resulting puddle.

Operation 2 (where did the water come from?) –

Consider a puddle of water on the floor. Now try to reconstruct in your mind’s eye the shape of the ice cube it may have been. Note that the puddle may not have necessarily originated from an ice cube.

What operation is harder?

Failure in Development

In trying to assess the state of the development sector it is often easier to focus on the here and now; to look at what can be done and what can be changed in the future. The more difficult process of looking backwards to ascertain why mistakes have been made and identifying the reasons for past failures is too often glossed over or overlooked completely. Fear, embarrassment, and intolerance of failure drives our learning underground and hinders innovation.

Looking at the failures of development projects has the potential to teach us as much about how to implement a successful project as any program management framework. A fear of failure can lead to paralysis and inertia; however, this does not mean we should bury our fears. We shouldn’t be afraid to try innovative and risky ventures, but we should fear waste and the potential negative consequences that can result from development projects. There is a misassumption that any talk of failure feeds failure’s flames, but for development projects to successfully innovate we need to be able to have open conversations about both our past and future failures.

Development enterprises can misguidedly have a blinkered view of the effectiveness of their products or programs. In the quest for further funding, blind faith in your effectiveness can often be more rewarded than engagement with the possibility of failure.

One Laptop per Child

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OLPC X0: A great product, but not a great success.

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program is one of the most ambitious educational reform initiatives the world has ever seen. The program developed a radically new low cost laptop computer and distributed more than 2 million computers around the world, mostly in developing countries. Most of these laptops are now in disrepair and it is not clear if the vast investment in the technology yielded any improvements in educational results, in disparate contexts from Idaho to Kampala. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and chairman of OLPC, shunned pilot programs, monitoring and formal evaluation in the belief that it slowed down the uptake of a program that he thought had clear benefits. He explained in this talk,

I’d like you to imagine that I told you “I have a technology that is going to change the quality of life.” And then I tell you, “Really the right thing to do is to set up a pilot project to test my technology. And then the second thing to do is, once the pilot has been running for some period of time, is to go and measure very carefully the benefits of that technology.” And then I am to tell you what we are going to do is very scientifically evaluate this technology, with control groups – giving it to some, giving it to others. This all is very reasonable until I tell you the technology is electricity, and you say “Wait, you don’t have to do that.” But you don’t have to do that with laptops and learning either. The fact that somebody in the room would say the impact is unclear is to me amazing—unbelievably amazing.”

But the impact was unclear and Negroponte’s utopian technological deterministic approach has been widely discredited. OLPC’s and Negroponte’s inability to look back at their initial failures wasted precious resources and diverted attention away from more promising approaches to educational reform.

PlayPump

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PlayPump: Not as much fun as it looked.

In a similar tale of misguided development, PlayPump International developed a merry-go-round that hooked up to a water pump. Every time children spun on the wheel fresh, clean water was pumped into an elevated tank that anyone in the village could use. The idea seemed flawless – kids got to enjoy themselves while water got pumped. Donations flowed in, with the Clinton Global Initiative pledging $16.4 million in 2006. But, less than two years after the grants came in, one quarter of the pumps were already in disrepair. In 2010, “Frontline” interviewed the director of PlayPump about its failures, and he said, “It might have been a bit ambitious, but hey, you gotta dream big. Everyone’s always said it’s such a great idea.” Dreaming big whilst ignoring context and failures is not the path to progress.

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How to Fail

Other NGO’s have been more successful at identifying or admitting to their failures. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has boldly been tackling this issue since 2008 by publishing failure reports. These reports publicly celebrate the NGO’s failures and allows them to share the lessons they learn from their failure more broadly and create a culture that encourages creativity whilst, most importantly, being able to take informed calculated risks.

John Danner and Mark Coppersmith, professors at Berkeley and Stanford, in their recent book The Other F Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work find that it is not just the development industry that has trouble talking about failure. They show that organizations that achieve faster growth and more innovation, irrespective of the sector, engage with their past failures and see those failures as a resource to be tapped.

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As development practitioners we have a greater responsibility to fear failure than in the business sector and seeing failure as a resource to be tapped can be problematic. The Silicon Valley mantra of “Fail early, fail often, fail forward” may reap rewards when the measurement of success is your bottom line, but is it irresponsible to use the same methodology when the stakes are higher? When a community’s water supply or a child’s education is at risk, is it callous to see failure as an opportunity for progress? We need to be able to discuss the possibility of failure without fear, but with an awareness that our actions can have negative repercussions on people’s lives. We need open and honest dialogue about what is working and what isn’t within development and we need to place greater emphasis on studying unsuccessful programs so that we do not naively continue to make the same mistakes.

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