I recently came across a fascinating and potentially groundbreaking blog called Admitting Failure. It is a blog created by staff at the Engineers Without Borders Canada that chronicles the failures of EWBC in order to learn from them. The most recent blog post is by someone from MSF, talking about how they failed to learn a lesson about emphasizing comprehensive health care rather than infectious disease treatment--even though countless evaluations had highlighted that fact.
And it got me thinking, how many organizations actually have institutionalized and/or centralized processes to transfer lessons learned from both success and failures? And what do these processes look like?
Here at Search for Common Ground, we have several ways that support programme learning and the transfer and institutionalization of lessons learned. Central to this is our commitment to publicly share evaluation reports on our website. At the programme level, after each evaluation has been completed we organize a post evaluation review where we reflect on the recommendations and findings and decide how we can use this information to improve our future programming. We also circulate key evaluation findings and lessons learned across the organization so that other colleagues can learn from these findings. We also look for opportunities to replicate successful models across our different country programmes. For example, we took our Radio for Peacebuilding in Africa model and replicated that in Asia. We have taken a successful model for women’s empowerment developed in Indonesia and developed modified versions of this in Pakistan, Burundi, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar.
As well as success, evaluations can often show what has not worked and we should be as keen to learn from these insights as from our successes.
So I am curious, how does your organization learn from failure? And how does your organization actually learn 'lessons learned'?
To me, the issue should be look at from the organisation's ability to avoid failure abinitio. This can be achieved by way of proper planning, forecasting and execution of plans that ensure that performance is alighned to plans. Another way of achieving this is benchmarking others that have succeeded in similar endeavour whilst taking time to avoid those pitfalls of organisations which had failed in the area of focus. Learning from failure to me is a bad learning method.
I certainly agree that failure should be avoided. But of course this is not possible 100% of the time. And if we are to realistic reduce the occurance of failure in the future, then we must learn how and why we have failed in the past. And sometimes, we may not even realize we had failed.
Peace-related achievements can be tenuous and easily reversed beyond the project timeframe. I suppose this may not be considered failure since it occured outside of the project timeframe, but I would suggest it is still failure since the achievements were not sustainable. So this provides an excellent opportunity to strengthen future planning relating to that type of project. It may very well be that another organization already knew that lesson, but organizations do not talk to each other enough about their lessons learned and best practices--the competition for scarce funding resources may suppress that open and transparent sharing.
I agree that benchmarking is something to be aspired to, and indeed this is something the Learning Portal hopes to do through its yearly reviews of submitted evaluation reports. (To make sure we are on the same page, I am using benchmarking to refer to a process by which the results of one project are compared to a similar project from a different context in order to determine whether those results were below or above average. But this can be difficult particularly when peace projects tend to be tailored to the uniqueness of the context and/or conflict. Have you used benchmarking in this way? Or perhaps we are referring to different things when we say 'benchmarking'?
I really enjoyed reading this post! I agree, however, I would like to add that our idea and culture around the word failure needs to change. I feel that in almost every field of study there is a goal of perfection and those that achieve anything less or make mistakes are considered failures. Particularly in the peace field, if an organization’s programs were failures in the past people would look at them as failures and be less likely to contribute funds to future programs. Hidding failures are the norm and cherry picking stories of success are a way to cover up these less than desirable outcomes.
If we begin to ask all NGOs to be more transparent about their failures we could all learn from these projects. Perhaps it is the word failure that makes organizations feel ashamed of these outcomes. I feel that projects are only failures if organizations do not learn from their mistakes. How can we change our perceptions of failures not as something that should be hidden but examined critically and learned from?
When the Information and Technology field first came out with the computer there were many failures. However, these failures were not just swept under the rug rather they were examined, taken apart and put back together, always with the question in mind of “How can we make this better?” Today, this is one of the strongest and fastest growing fields. The peace field should embrace lessons learned through failure as a community in order to become more effective.
We are all human and we all make mistakes, but it is what we take from these that make us better.
I agree with the comment made by km4brown about an organization’s strive for perfection acting as a barrier towards the recognition of possible failure. However, I believe putting in place a practice of reflexive evaluation contributes to not only the improvement of the individuals, but the same can occur for an organization as well.
On a more local scale than what most of you peace-practitioners discuss and relate to, my conflict resolution centre in suburban Ontario, in my opinion, does a fine job of institutionalizing various evaluative methods that forces staff to learn from our daily successes and failures. Firstly, as a branch off of a not-for-profit organization, dependent mainly on city funding, it seems easy for an organization to want to gloss over failure in order to please its stakeholders and donors. Nevertheless, the rigour and dedication to constantly adapt, train and evolve, based on what we face from our daily case-loads, contributes to the long-term success of the organization. Although proving numbers is part of guaranteeing return funding—an organization’s attempt to learn from its failures and its successes is key to its longevity as well.
The organization I mediate at has a sound method for learning from our daily practice: Upon the completion of a case, each mediator is encouraged to make notes and reflect on the process—challenges, concerns, successes, areas of potential improvement. These notes are then discussed with our co-mediator (on the case)—this can be either ongoing—after case development, after mediation is completed—or at the end of the entire case. Furthermore, our supervisor sits with us after our more challenging cases, and case-conferences with us about our reflections. Finally, and something I most appreciate and value, once a month the roster of mediators holds professional development events where difficult cases are presented and we sit and brainstorm with everyone, based on how others would have worked through the challenges. Of course names of cases are changed, and only the situation is what is analyzed—but through peer evaluation and feedback, I personally find my tool-belt is broadened, and my confidence to mediate a similarly tricky case in the future is elevated. As a team we work through challenges, and also celebrate successes. This not only lends us difference of perspectives, weaves tighter our network, but also strengthens the morale and dynamic of the organization.
Thank you very much for this blog post, and for opening up a discussion on how organizations can learn from their failures. In “Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit” Lederach et al. state that failure should be seen as an educational opportunity: “The great gift of failure is that it so often promotes learning, while the tragedy of success is that it is easy to assume things happened exactly as expected and neglect the opportunity to learn.” (p. 5) . I think that, for many, myself included, this realization does not come easy (especially in a field that directly impacts people’s lives in difficult situations), but it is an incredibly valuable notion to consider.
Furthermore, I think that openly acknowledging failure can increase transparency, accountability, and, thus, credibility for an organization. Moreover, utilizing it as a “lesson learned” can improve on projects and ensure their relevance to the targeted population and/or clients. If failure is not noted, projects have the potential to stall positive change, or even make things worse for those that they are trying to impact. All in all, I think that recognizing mistakes benefits and, crucially, empowers stakeholders, beneficiaries, and the general public.
Personally, I would like to see more advocacy organizations, that are involved in broader movements for social change, openly and actively engage in evaluations of campaigns and other work that note failures. Suggestions on how to include “lessons learned” in future strategies should also be provided, and made publicly available. In my experience working with a non-profit, that is a part of the larger environmental movement, failures in political lobbying and advocacy efforts were often attributed (not always unjustly) to the political climate at the time. Internally, the organization did not take responsibility for their shortcomings and challenges. In fact, they were often ignored or not dealt with. It is my belief that this inability to discover, and learn from, “lessons learned” stagnated change within the organization itself, and was also detrimental to achieving key goals. If anyone has any experiences with advocacy organizations and how they deal with failure, I’d be interested to learn more!
1. Lederach, John Paul, Neufeldt, Reina, and Culbertson, Hal. (2007). Reflective Peacebuilding:
A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. The Joan B. Krock Institute for
International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, and Catholic Relief Services
Southeast, East Asia Regional Office.