An introduction on learning from failures

Hi All

How many failed projects have you seen? Did you follow up with the people or companies who ran those projects, and asked them for their learnings or studies on their failures, and if they can help you avoid it?

This video is almost 8 years old, but I think it is essential viewing for anyone working on any project, because it touches on the core issues.

“David Damberger: What happens when an NGO admits failure”

Please don’t be fooled to think that this is only “Western” projects that make this mistake. I am sure we have all seen how the exact same thing has happened to many different projects in our own countries and projects run by our own governments.

I think this ties into the post on “Key factors for a successful and sustainable network” and has given me food for thought to add - there I mentioned “skills” as the important thing, because the people with the right skills will know about all of this - but I have been working on trying to distill the important points about the details of the skills needed - for example, detail about cost of maintenance, and how long things take in different environments… hopefully we can draft good interview questions and things that can be checked, such as: How long does it take do to something in a rural area, as compared to an urban area? How much of the budget would be needed for maintenance, depending on the technology or configuration. And - can you write some notes on failures you’ve observed, and ways that you countered them, or how they could’ve been better countered in the first place.

This video is part of the introduction of a free EdX course:

Sharing information about failure is hard, because it can be taken as a personal attack on someone, but can we please accept that it’s not - and that we all make mistakes. Let’s use this topic or channel to share about failures - but lets remain sensitive by not sharing where it happened or who was involved - just what happened, and our questions and suggestions for how we think it could’ve been avoided - and let’s discuss it here.

Also, an idea from my experience - that seems to be often neglected: Schedule and make time to write about what went wrong, and why, and how you could avoid it - but first, and importantly, also ask yourself that if you were looking for this, where would you go looking? Make sure you publish this in a way that will be easy to find - and please link it here!

What frustrates me personally the most is when I see people who everybody calls experts failing in what they are supposed to be best at, but everyone else who hasn’t given up yet, are so much worse, and that I don’t know if it’s that nobody can see it, or if it is because we are all too afraid to talk about it, or that we don’t know how, or don’t even want to take the time.

My culture grew up with a story of “The emperor’s new clothes” - from a very young age, so I don’t know if that made me more attuned to this. It is an obviously absurd story of an emperor that gets a brand new, very fancy dress, but nobody wants to offend him so nobody says anything.

I don’t know if money has anything to do with it - it would seem that if people are paid only when they succeed that they will have an incentive to advertise their “success”. It amounts to a white lie, if they omit their failures, or didn’t even notice them. It is ironic because you would think that if people are paid no matter if they fail or succeed, it would cause this. It seems obvious that is has more to do with the content and knowledge and message that is generated, and the context, than the money - but from this it would seem that it is important to pay for failures too, especially if it is something where there has not been success in the past, or where the success hasn’t been good enough, or if the reasons are poorly understood or have not been tested.

It makes it extremely difficult to follow up, if people do not want to expose their weakness or admit their failure, or if they don’t want to talk about it. Maybe it is the human condition. Failure is a disaster, but not seeing it or learning from it is an even bigger disaster.

None of us are born winners or born smart, it takes a lot of pain and hard work, and learning from your failure is the hardest, but also the most important, and the most rewarding. I will share what I think my failures were, (I can not be sure, because there are many other viewpoints that I don’t understand yet) - and I will be proud of my failures only when I don’t repeat them - and especially when I can help other people to avoid the same mistakes.

An undue focus on failure is not the solution either. It’s all about how you approach it.

I read an article about a sport coaching method that emphasized focusing on “what works” or the “success” rather than the “failure” - and just iterating on that and forgetting the failure - and that it was much more effective. To me this is about “taking things personally” and mistaking what we do, for who we are. The two are separate. Even the best people in history, made big mistakes before they became famous - and it seems that the world forgave them for their failures because of what they did later (Alfred Nobel from the Nobel Prize, as well as Nelson Mandela, springs to mind, but there are many.)

First and foremost, repeat what works. But if you don’t understand why it works, or if its clear that it doesn’t work everywhere, try and identify the underlying issues, and try to solve them first - put it in a larger context, maybe this solution is just a small part of something much bigger and something else is blocking it - identify the issues, not the people - sometimes people fight about something small, and there is a much bigger issue, or the one person doesn’t yet understand the bigger issue, or they think they do, but they haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of the other person - the only remedy for this is to give enough time for everyone to understand it, and to make sure that the focus on the solution is the main goal, but that you don’t forget the mistakes and failures - you need to be able to see the traps that you should definitely avoid, if you want to succeed.

Do you have any lessons from failures? It is especially difficult to share, because people like to blame other people- so if I share my failures, then people will think I am blaming them - even when I blame myself - but both are a mistake - because it means that we have not learned from it. But how do we learn if people don’t make the time for it? And blaming people will not help anyone, and it will be counter productive. How do we approach this?

Maybe it is easier to ask older people about what they have learned from their failures, if the failures are 5 or 10 years old, and people have learned from it or have accepted it? You could argue that it might be outdated - but it is not. You can read stories from Ancient Greece or India, that if you translate it, it sounds like it was written yesterday. This is part of us growing up as a species, to be able to constructively share our knowledge in a way that we can stop repeating the same stupid mistakes and learn from each other.