What refreshing and fascinating idea this Admitting Failure blog is. Unfortunately I can’t help thinking that the blog itself will almost certainly ‘fail’ to do what it sets out to do. But this will undoubtedly be a valuable and productive process in itself – and will prove their point rather beautifully.
Failure is a big word, and it’s hard to imagine NGO workers falling over themselves to catalogue their actions in these terms. No one should disagree with the key diagnosis of the Admitting Failures team – that there is “worst practice secrecy” in the development industry which stifles learning and innovation – but if we agree with their key point that mistakes are there to learn from, and that mistakes are often the foundations for success, we are hardly likely to class them as ‘failures’ in the first place.
Development-speak is already full of silver-lining versions of the ‘failure’ idea – coded as ‘lessons to be learned’ or ‘unexpected outcomes’. These terms may be sanitised and impersonal, but they do capture an important point about difficulty and struggle in development work: that when things go wrong there is rarely a single person (or single agency) at fault.
If I describe a failed project I was involved in, I am not only risking my own reputation and credibility, but those of every other person and every agency who was involved. What if my story of what happened is different to theirs? What if we don’t agree about the mistakes that were made; the reasons they happened – or even the nature of the ‘failure’ itself? Do I have a have a right to tell the story, even if others see this as slandering their work?
The difficulty of these questions will doubtless discourage most NGO workers from sharing their experiences with Admitting Failures. But the mischievous provocation of this initiative will certainly get people thinking privately and informally about what mistakes they may have made in their careers, and whether they have been involved in projects and programmes that genuinely failed.
I only hope Admitting Failure does not count the number of failure stories it receives as the primary measure of the initiative’s success.