Admitting Failure: Join the Posse (Only for real Men)

I am all in favour of evolution in development practice and thinking, where normally, it is more important to cull downright dismal failures than to select only the best, as evolution needs variability to work its magic.

Admitting mistakes or difficulties is also part of every professional relationship between partners. Part of the reputation of ICRC is generated by its tendency to speak rather bluntly about its own capacities in private, while the toeing of the party line by the staff of other organisations (say UNICEF) lessens the confidence in the organisation. However, when looking at the public image, it might be the other way round. It might seem that, when you need direct funding from the broader public, admitting failure is not the best practice.

I have some serious questions on the trend to focus on admitting failure. I will focus on elements:

  1. Who can admit failure?
  2. What does this failure say about the respect organisations have for beneficiaries?
  3. The posse rides again, where do we ride it to?

Who can admit failure?
When I look at who is leading the charge in “admitting failure”, it seems to me that big failures can be admitted by organisations who interact mostly with a more sophisticated donor public: governments (World bank) or better informed people (who supports engineers without borders?). For these organisations it seems to me to be fully in line with the analysis of Marc: it is just something to run with the posse, without a real cost. It is signaling credibility. However, if they need a separate thematic line to treat with failure, what have their (transparent) evaluation and monitoring departments been doing until now? An aspect that cannot be addressed with the failure approach is the recognition that systems are inherently complex.

When other organisations publish failures, it is closer to a “lessons learned” story: we know this works, we applied it there, we overlooked this element, it did not work). What is being talked about by these organisation is not failure, but evaluation and short feedback loops, in order to be able to correct early in the project. Small NGOs don’t have official evaluation strategies, they just learn their lessons the hard way, and take them on board.

Admitting failure looks very much like extremely badly conceived monitoring and evaluation when described this way. Indeed I fear this failure posse might interfere with the other posse towards professional and transparent evaluation and results measurement. The World Bank should know better.

Please some respect
The stories about failure often describe projects that were implemented and afterwards it seemed not to work, because of a simple aspect not taken on board. The Merry-go-round water pump is the case in point. I notice that the evidence base of this project was weak, and implementation at a large scale happened before a decent assessment was made.

This echoes the discussion on the Millenium Villages in the Guardian where do-gooders rush into implementation of everything they think will help the villagers, claiming it would be immoral to let them wait until an evidence base is established. I sympathise with them, but a minimum of monitoring must be possible between a pilot or startup phase and full-blown execution. Of course, the victims of all this activism are poor, and poor are by definition powerless. The organisation can just move on, looking for fresh victims. There are enough of them : “the poor will always be with you”. With enough failure, we can assure they stay that way.

The posse rides again: where to ?
Failure looks to me like the spin off from a good tendency. The tendency to professionalism, to stop looking at the world as it should be, but as it is. The need for evaluations and feedback loops. The need for research and evidence base. The need to document what works and what not. Part of this professional approach is that failure is just another piece of transparent information from every actor.

However, like we saw the “program approach” coming instead of making good projects, it might be that the Posse on Failure attracts more riders than the one of professional information and risk management.

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