Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Admitting Failure

The inimitable J. over at Tales from the Hood has started a regular forum for aid bloggers to discuss a particular topic. The latest edition is Admitting Failure, and I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts which may or may not come together into a single outcome.

Story 1 - admitting programme failure internally
When I worked in Bangladesh for a large INGO, my job was to cruise around the field sites of their biggest programme (which Incorporated agriculture, women's empowerment, humanitarian response and a fourth element I can never remember) and produce case studies on the successes and failures of the programme. Once staff understood what I was trying to do, the success stories came flooding in. "Come and visit this programme, it's very successful," etc etc. Of course, different people had differing ideas as to what 'successful' meant, and it turned out that a couple of the so-called success stories were more like failures. Not one project manager put their hand up to say they had a failure. I guess that's to be expected, but even though these case studies were primarily for internal learning (though I'm sure the success stories were used with external audiences) no one wanted to admit to their colleagues that things hadn't gone according to plan.

Basically, I thought this was crazy. I understand why people keep quiet. But when you're talking about programmes that can change people's lives for the better (as I saw over and over again) or really cause harm (which I didn't see thankfully) then shouldn't we want to communicate what NOT to do within an organisation?? Seems pretty logical to me...

Story 2 - admitting individual failure internally
I had a debrief with my manager this morning and somehow we got onto the topic of people making mistakes and then denying they had any part of it (which is really a bit of a joke when their name is on the piece of paper in question). What my manager said was that the courage of an individual to come forward and say that they'd made a mistake and that they'd either rectified it or had a proposed solution, is actually highly respected in the department. It's never easy to say that you were wrong about something, but while you may get your head chewed off momentarily, in the long run it's better to come clean.

Story 3 - admitting failure externally
It's not really a story, just another conversation that I had a couple of hours ago with a person from donor relations. I asked that when reporting beneficiary numbers that a caveat be included to say that we can never be 100% sure that some people haven't been counted more than once, and that any single number that reports beneficiaries can't give an indication of the quality of the service/s those people received. My colleague told me that such a statement would be difficult to include in an update to donors, as we want to present ourselves as best we can. She then said, "but we shouldn't treat our donors as if they're stupid. They pay very close attention to what we do, and understand a lot more than many give them credit for," and she's absolutely right.

Actually, now that I think about it, there is a story in here. I spent a year as a donor reporting officer, and the thought of being completely honest with a donor was not one that was often entertained. Even though they'd already given the money, and we'd already spent it, I didn't want to let them know that there may have been, for example, delays in spending the money etc etc. I'm not talking about financial reporting, but reporting the progress of implementation. And yet, now that I think about it, wouldn't ECHO want to know that we'd had a rough time doing something, but had managed to overcome those constraints to deliver what we said we would? I don't think anyone actually believes that aid work is smooth sailing all of the time, and we shouldn't pretend it is in our reporting.

So I suppose if I were to try and sum my thoughts up on admitting failure, I'd have to simply say that I'm all for it. For both internal and external actors there's a lot of value in admitting failure, particularly if you're able to demonstrate that the failure has acted as a catalyst for learning, and that the 'lessons learned' don't just remain as 'learned' but are acted upon and changed. What's the point of admitting failure if it doesn't act as a change agent?

I haven't answered any of J.'s proposed questions, but if you head on over to the collection of links to other people participating in the forum, I know you'll find lots of interesting insights into admitting aid failures.

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