Admitting Failure, Greater Stakeholder Involvement, and Improving Development Outcomes

Since attending a FailFaire a couple years ago, I have been very interested in the challenges of identifying failure, admitting to the failure, and learning from failure. We all make mistakes in our own lives, and professionally. We make mistakes for hundred of reasons, but one of the most common reasons is lack of experience and information. Poor information and understanding of dynamics on the ground in places we try to do development greatly increases our chances of failing. International development is littered with failure, in fact, I think that the number of failed projects greatly outnumber successful projects. However, by not accepting we fail and owning up to these failures we are wasting an amazing body of experiences we could be learning from. Admitting to these failures not only give us opportunities to learn from what has gone wrong, but help us develop greater credibility with our stakeholders who see that we take responsibility for our actions and attempt to right things when they invariably go wrong.

Still, development institutions find it difficult to admit shortcomings in projects…there is a tendency to handle these shortcomings by defending the decisions made rather than showing empathy or directly addressing stakeholders’ concerns. Things have certainly improved, yet the immediate reaction is to be defensive. – Shamiela Mir (World Bank)

This defensiveness Mir points out is a major problem. Trying to pass off responsibility for a project’s failure is natural, but we need to start taking more responsibility for the failure of our projects. We also need to do a better job of involving stakeholders in all stages of the development process, and admitting to failure will make this easier. Increased stakeholder involvement would be beneficial in many ways

  1. Greater involvement from the beginning allows us to better design and target interventions that meet the needs of the beneficiaries we are trying to help
  2. When interventions target needs identified by the beneficiaries there is much higher likelihood of ownership of the project and the results, which should increase the possibility of sustainable development
  3. Keeping open communication during the implementation phase increases the opportunity to hear what is going right as well as what is going wrong. This allows for a more flexible just-in-time mentality where we can better adjust the implementation to local circumstances.
  4. When the beneficiaries are fully involved and own the project, they are more likely to participate in followup studies to assess the long-term effects of our interventions

Further Reading:
I highly recommend checking out the blog post by Mir that I quoted above. She looks at the value of giving apologies, and how owning mistakes could be beneficial to international development.

Not only is this blog post interesting there are some excellent links to other articles about making effective apologies and learning from failures. I particularly liked the following ones:

If you are interested in reading more about improving stakeholder involvement in development I highly recommend checking out Listening to Those Who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries, a recent article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Fay Twersky, Phil Buchanan, and Valerie Threlfall