Showing posts with label constructive mistakes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label constructive mistakes. Show all posts

Friday, November 8, 2013

Learning Before Investing

"One hundred twenty million dollars and Sach's reputation were riding on the outcome of this social experiment in Africa. Was anyone prepared to smash the glass and pull the emergency cord."

"'In hindsight it's like we were set up to fail...It's not that Jeff's ideas are wrong--he's a big, inspiring thinker. It's not that the project's ambition moved more quickly than the capacity. It makes me feel like a chump. It makes me feel totally hollow.'"

Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty.

I'm a fan of the distinction between constructive and non constructive failures I learned in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War by Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch. Constructive failures are where we push the limits on what we know by absorbing lessons from the past and relevant theory and practice about design and implementation. Failure teaches us about our assumptions. designs and actions. We learn. Non constructive failures are when we do the opposite -- rush into action without absorbing past lessons and relevant theory. Our implementation relies upon faulty partners and time frames. In reality, I've found myself in a lot of mixed situations of both constructive and non-constructive failure.

The Idealist paints Sach's Millenium Villages Project as a non constructive failure. Too much money, poor site selection, too complicated, too rushed, too driven by ambition -- all undermining factors we know about. This is not to say important improvements for people didn't come out of the project -- or that determined advocacy to end poverty is wrongheaded. In fact, we need more of that. It's just that there was a missed opportunity with a lot of money behind it.

A contrasting story is told about Tostan in: However Long the Night: Molly Melching's Journey To Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph by Aimee Molloy. It's a story of patience, listening, building up capacity and voice within villages, and taking bold steps. Village communities are the guide. We've learned that, right?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Failure Learning

"In Silicon Valley, failure is a rite of passage....If you're not failing, you're not considered to be innovative enough."

Quote from Wayan Vota of the World Bank, in Sarika Bansal, "The Power of Failure," The New York Times, December 2, 2012.

This short piece promotes failure recognition in the nonprofit sector as a key component of learning and innovation. In particular, it highlights a great tool the World Bank has developed called FAILfare, a process for openly discussing investments that didn't work. It's like the mistakes potlucks we suggest along with other tools on Of course, these can't be one-time events, and organizations must do a lot of things to make failure talk a normal habit of everyday organizational life.

Back to Silicon Valley. Is this rite of passage metaphor relevant for the nonprofit sector? I was talking to someone the other day who bemoaned the fact that this same breed of venture investors  from Silicon Valley sometimes become narrowly focused on single measures of success, and think pouring in lots of money is the answer to social problems. That's frequently a mistake in in itself.

We in the nonprofit sector should become much better at recognizing more  quickly tactical mistakes and taking corrective action or exiting. The challenge is with constructive mistakes, when we are pushing the envelope on what works to solve deep challenges. Failing fast may not be the right approach. We need to stick with promising ideas long enough to see if they are successes or failure. That's a different kind of courage.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rightsizing Convictions

"That's why it's so important to remain skeptical, to reexamine assumptions, to consider alternatives. If we are going to make progress, we have to be willing to acknowledge and confront our cognitive biases. What we are doing and why, how we are doing it and where, who we are working with and when. We have to lose the courage of our convictions and open up to being wrong.

Remaining skeptical doesn't mean that you have to become a cynic."

Tim Ogden, "Losing the Courage of Your Convictions," Stanford Social Innovation Review, August 10,2012.

There is a lot packed into this provocative and insightful posting. We in the social sector have to become much more comfortable with learning from mistakes, constructive failure, and speaking against convention. This isn't just a matter of moral or philosophical belief; we need to train ourselves and our organizations to do this. It's unnatural. Take a look at Mistakes to Success and Mistakes Roadmap at You will also need a different kind of courage, a courage to withstand the charge of cynicism and not being one of the team, especially for beloved projects and investments.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Accountability Me!

"Thus, a foundation assessing community readiness might also consider whether its own structure, leadership, staff roles, internal systems, and culture make it ready for the role it has envisioned for itself as a sponsor."

Prudence Brown, Marie Colombo, and Delia M. Hughes, "Foundation Readiness for Community Transformation: Learning in Real Time," Foundation Review,Winter 2009 Vol 1:1

This is true in relation to results-based accountability as well. Too often foundations or other investors hold grantees to agreed-upon targets but the grantees bear the full weight of accountability. When foundations understand themselves as investors in these targets, they own the results within their own governance accountability systems and are more cognizant of how they are fully implicated in whether results are achieved. Grantees may still not perform or environmental conditions may change, but foundations are unable to simply blame others for things going wrong. Their actions or non actions on behalf of these results are a key part of the story.

This new kind of self awareness and accountability are also needed in the realm of learning and mistakes. We tend to celebrate the language of "make new mistakes" without an equal appetite for surfacing these mistakes and being accountable for them--at least in the short run. This kind of accountability is admittedly difficult for all kinds of organizations -- but it is especially important for foundations who have a mission to improve knowledge and capacity.

The short message for foundations is that if you are going to require new behaviors grantees and other partners, then you should be a role model in demonstrating them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

War Failure

[B]y just about any measure, his war was on the verge of failure. The strategy of winning an enduring peace had failed. The strategy of defeating terrorism had failed. The strategy of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East had failed. The strategy of at least bringing democracy to Iraq had failed."

David Finkel, The Good Soldiers

Did the surge turn things around? Much of the failure literature is about war, including the distinction between constructive and non constructive failures put forth by Eliot Cohen and John Gooch in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War. The failures of war are certainly harder to hide -- although we have witnessed many creative measures taken to disguise failure in plain sight. And, arguably ,the military wants to learn from mistakes, although fighting today's war with the lessons from the past seems to be a common affliction.

I like the constructive/non constructive failure distinction despite its either/or quality that sometimes misrepresents our fuzzier reality. It also represents a kind of bureaucratic and ethical distancing from the underlying truth that war is a bad thing that seldom wins the peace.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Failure Talk

"But when was the last time you saw failure worked into any assessment rubric or logic model? Maybe, just maybe, we should be holding ourselves accountable for failing as much as for succeeding! Now that would signal intrepid philanthropy..."

Sally Osberg, "Failure Anyone?" Intrepid Philanthropist, December 9, 2009

What would "holding ourselves accountable for failure" look like? Transparency is certainly a first step. But think of when we begin to share our successes, usually at the stage of looking good, showing promise, or pointing in the right direction. The big evaluation is icing on the cake. That approach wouldn't work for many failures in philanthropy, although efforts with a double bottom line are likely to show problems earlier and in more forceful terms. If we are lucky, mid-course corrections are a time, at least for ourselves and partners, to acknowledge what hasn't been working and to make adjustments. For many failures, however, we sometimes need for the dust to clear before we can talk failure. Unfortunately, by that time many of us are on to new things.

Two other problems are becoming clear to me after collecting a number of failure stories. First, the dividing line of success and failure is not always so clear: many initiatives contain both and success and failure evolve over time. Second, the distinction between constructive and non-constructive failure is useful but harder to pin down than you might think. Most cases are hybrids. And non-constructive failure raises basic questions about good design, implementation, management, and investment. Our standards for feasibility, risk-taking, design and management are not as high as they should be.