Are We Falling into a ‘Buzzword Trap’ Around Failure?

Are we falling into a ‘buzzword trap’ around failure?

This question was on the mind of more than a few attendees at the FAILFaire “Fail to Scale” event, hosted two weeks ago by UNICEF Innovation.

Events like FAILFaire, platforms like Admitting Failure, and publications such as Stanford Social Innovation Review’s What Didn’t Work series are proving the old adage “failure is not an option” obsolete. We are recognizing that without failure, we lose the opportunity to learn why something didn’t work—“success goes to the head, but losing goes to the heart.” Failure hits hard and the knowledge we gain from it motivates change.

But while these events and platforms offer invaluable opportunities to open up about failure, how do we harness these discussions on failure to produce failure-informed change?

At FAILFaire, representatives from organizations ranging from UN agencies to social enterprises, media start-ups to design firms exposed their biggest project scaling failures in a 1-hour “Fail Slam”. Some used humor to make it bearable; others embodied the deep frustration failure has caused.

Most of the presentations fell into two general categories. In the first, speakers outlined the program, the failure, and the change that increased success. While helpful, these presentations were most useful for people working in a specific sector or geographic region. Jeff Chapin of CommonMade, for example, talked about his work with IDEO scaling up sales operations for latrine projects in Cambodia. He recognized failure in a sales model centered around Cambodian village health workers and reworked the model—as much as possible given funding constraints—to prioritize training and sustainability.

The second category of speakers focused on insufficient attention and funding from large donor organizations. Tala Dowlatshahi shared her main lessons on how to get attention based on her experience running Reporters Uncensored RUTV broadcasts on poverty and war. “Sex up content as much as possible, with celebrities, etc.,” she suggested to increase viewership. The co-founder of another organization had similar advice: “If you have Matt Damon talking about it, that’s success. That’s sexy.”

Across the board, discussions circled back time and again to deficiencies and constraints in our current systems: lack of attention from donors and intended audiences; inflexible donor funding structures and bureaucracies; the need to “work the system” with sex appeal or whatever is necessary to gain support.

Sexy sells, we know that. But sexy is not a solution.

The overwhelming focus of these discussions on ‘selling’ programs within existing structures trades short-term success for long-term failure because it concedes to the unresponsive systems that are at the root of the problem. Can we use knowledge from our failures to target the heart of the problem: the unresponsive systems themselves?

This is no doubt a far more intimidating challenge. As Jeff said, “We need a change in the system and I don’t know what that is.” FAILFaire is  a positive step in this direction by providing a platform to talk openly and humbly about failure. As a next step, inviting program donor counterparts—large organization and government representatives—to engage in the discussion could help change the behavior of donors toward failure and the associated risks. More targeted discussion questions could help us go beyond frustration and placing blame to changing incentives and behaviors that aren’t currently serving those they should be.

Looking forward, let’s capitalize even further on opportunities like FAILFaire to discuss how we can begin to change the systems that enable our failures in the first place.

Futher reading.