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When Innovation Fails

Edith Wilson's picture

I’ve been having some interesting conversations with some of our favorite people like Mari Kuraishi, Jim Koch and Marla Capozzi, about a topic we don’t probe much in development: what we do with an innovative project fails.

In Silicon Valley, as Mari and Marla reminded me lately, you earn your spurs trying and failing. It is almost easier to get funding if you have failed a few times. Venture capital firms assume you learned some valuable things in the process. It’s a credential. But in development? Failing with a donor’s money? Even when you said you were piloting something or trying something new? Surely you failed because you didn’t get the job done, weren’t smart enough, or ran into politics.

We don’t even track failures for the most part, only successes and results. Perhaps we need to change that mentality, though, if we want to get better at innovation for development. Perhaps Development Marketplace should have been tracking and analyzing not just the projects that took off and grew, but why some of our winning projects didn’t take off or reach their goals. Maybe those were important conversations to have. Maybe we would have found that the leaders of those projects dusted themselves off and found new ways to keep going.

We want to open the discussion about innovation in development up as wide as possible. Let’s think of the topics we don’t usually discuss and put them squarely on the table. What else should we be discussing?


Hi Edit, this is a great idea. As I suggested in the past (, it would be great if we organised a development equivalent of the UK "Failcamp" - an event dedicated to celebrating -and talking about failure. Way too often, "lessons learned" in the development sector are synonimous with polished, carefully sanitised PR pieces. We need less of those, and more open discussions about what doesn't work. Cheers, Giulio

Giulio, Hmm, I guess I will have to take a look at the UK "Failcamp" -- what an interesting model, points to the folks who came up with it. I totally agree that polished pieces about all the great results we are getting don't help us understand what is not working. Success stories are very important -- people need inspiration, and there are great stories out there -- but maybe we are asking the wrong questions of the people behind the successes. Maybe if we asked them if this was their first try, we would discover that they actually tried several times before they got a winning approach or figured out how to get funding, and so on. Maybe the people who are succeeding did a lot of failing, but we aren't encouraging them to share those stories too. I will throw in here that I practice what I preach -- I've been engaged in lots of experimentation, and some of them crashed and burned. We tried all sorts of things when I was running a small NGO called the Food Action Center. Some of our projects lasted for a while, great pilots, but one, an innovative training program for young people on food and agriculture issues, outlasted our organization by six years because the design just worked for all involved. It was actually designed by an intern, Mike Rozyne who has gone on to built several other programs. First time I ever gave an intern a raise!

Submitted by Alejo Lopez on
Edith, you raise an excellent point. Having worked both in development and also prowled the Silicon Valley as an [successful-to-be] entrepreneur, I believe that both the nature of the VC/entrepreneur partnership as well as the clear ownership of success and failure is what makes failure itself almost irrelevant. Failure it's awful and costly hard but it's the open door to a better business plan or a better venture. In development however, ownership is not so clear and the partnership between donors and local organizations is far from being strong in most cases. More importantly, development projects are mostly driven by bureaucrats and politicians. Entrepreneurs are mainly recipients of donor money and not an integral part of the planning process, so their ownership is limited. When failure happens, people (bank and NGO employees) do their best to protect their jobs and don't feel encouraged to tell the full story. I don't think it's their fault, it's the system. I think that if entrepreneurs are engaged in the early planning process (like it happens in a commercial venture) and investors partner with them, a similar approach to success and failure would emerge. Not sure if this is attainable at all in development as we know it.

Alejo's suggestions are well taken. But let's push a little further on what causes failure. For instance, time frames. Are we realistic in the time frames and goals that donors give to true start-up social ventures (as opposed to replication of something that has been done somewhere else)? Is two years the right period of time or should we have ways to continue support for projects that are meeting their targets but need continued support? We've been taking a hard look at this for Development Marketplace recently. Second, how do we provide incentives for people to report on projects that didn't work, with recommendations for what might have made a difference? What can donors do about this?

Edith, Fun post, thanks for bringing me in. So it turns out one of the reasons we don't pay as much attention to failure is, to quote Jessica Rabbit, is that we're drawn that way--our brains like to impose patterns. And most failures--unless we have a clear hypothesis around it--usually comes across as white noise. Here's a great WIRED article about how scientists deal with failure ( It also points out why people on the margins--less vested in the status quo--can see the unexpected. I also think it makes the case for talking about failure with as wide and diverse an audience as possible so that you can move on to building and refining hypotheses. Better than cleaning up after pigeons, as the article points out.

Great posts about celebrating failure. Yes, change the culture and when failure occurs immediately find out why. It should become a company wide reflex reaction to anything that fails. I am so passionate about the concept I wrote a book on the subject called: Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big.

Did this blog post spark a Fail Fare in DC? I saw something on twitter about it but haven't been able to find anything else. I'm very intrigued.

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