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FAILfaire

Running your own FAILfaire

Michael Trucano's picture
epic fail
epic fail

It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is meant to have once remarked.  Those of us who have worked for any period of time on educational technology projects, or on international development projects (let alone in the space where these two areas meet!), will have come across at least one project that 'failed' -- and perhaps did so spectacularly.  How might we learn from such failures?

One way to do this that is gaining traction in increasing numbers of organizations is a FAILfaire.  What is a FAILfaire, you ask?

In the words of the MobileActive NGO, which has been a big proponent of the approach,

"While we often focus on highlighting successes in our field, it’s no secret that many projects just don’t work – some don’t scale, some aren’t sustainable, some can’t get around bureaucratic hoops, and many fail due to completely unanticipated barriers. At FAILFaire we want to recognize the failures: the pilots that never got anywhere, the applications that are not delivering, the projects that are not having any measurable impact on the lives of people, and the cultural or technical problems that arise."

Writing on the World Bank's Education for Global Development blog, Ariel Fiszbein, the World Bank's Chief Economist in the Human Development Sector (which includes health and education), notes that "Publicizing what doesn’t work is a fundamental part of any approach to evidence-based policy.  Lack of results is a likely outcome of any innovation. We should remain open and even celebrate those that bring us the bad news as they are helping us stay honest."

Or, in the words of the Dutch Institute of Brilliant Failures (there really is such a thing!), "sharing lessons from what hasn't worked can stimulate entrepreneurial thinking and behavior (in the broadest sense of the word) by encouraging people to develop new ideas and enabling innovators to turn ideas into reality". Such efforts could be wasted in a culture where failure is seen as shameful and few are prepared to take risks. A FAILfaire -- a term that appears to be novel enough that it is still not in Wikipedia -- is one small attempt to help change such a culture.

OK, you might say, I'm with you so far.  Conceptually what you say makes a lot of sense.  But what is attractive in the abstract can become decidedly less so when you try to translate such laudable sentiments into actual practice.

Failing in public -- one way to talk openly about (and learn from) 'failed' projects

Michael Trucano's picture

failure is not (only) child's play | image attribution at bottom I had the good fortune to participate in the recent FAILfaire event in DC organized by the MobileActive NGO and the innovations team at the World Bank Institute. What's a FAILfaire, you ask?  In the words of the organizers:

"While we often focus on highlighting successes in our field, it’s no secret that many projects just don’t work – some don’t scale, some aren’t sustainable, some can’t get around bureaucratic hoops, and many fail due to completely unanticipated barriers. At FAILFaire we want to recognize the failures: the pilots that never got anywhere, the applications that are not delivering, the projects that are not having any measurable impact on the lives of people, and the cultural or technical problems that arise."

Here are the respective event wrap-ups from both WBI and MobileActive.