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


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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.

While investigations into 'failure' like this to promote learning are increasingly common in some parts of the private sector, the public sector has been, for the most part, quite reluctant to engage in this sort of thing (the bureaucratic incentives for doing so point in the wrong direction for most public officials and civil servants). Hopefully last week's event provides some additional 'courage' for organizations active in international development to permit their staff (as well as those NGOs whose activities they often fund) to participate in and benefit from such learning opportunities, both within the walls of their own institutions, and publicly as well.


Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post ["failure is not (only) child's play"] comes from Flickr user KimNavarre via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


Michael Trucano

Global Lead for Innovation in Education, Sr. Education & Technology Policy Specialist

Join the Conversation

Susan Crowder
August 10, 2010

Michael, I've been very interested in reading about the recent FAILFaire event and wish I could have been there. Understand it was oversubscribed, so that says something about the pent-up demand. Can you expand at all on the bureaucratic incentives that "point in the wrong direction"? I recently took a course on innovation as it applies to HR (or HR as it applies to innovation) and I've been trying to think about how HR policies could help enable talking about failure as part of the innovation process. But for me it's all theoretical. Would be interested to know what you think.

August 12, 2010

Great that multi laterals are now trying to acknowledge their failed projects and project ideas. Do you think the next logical step for them would be to:

A) Write off the loans funding failed projects and forego repayment of the project loans?

B) Publicly acknowledge the fact that most of their policy prescriptions never delivered and that the policy based loans did not sustain growth or reforms?

Both gestures would bolster credibility and convince us that this new found candor was something more than a one time PR exercise.

Charlie Schueller
August 13, 2010

Great initiative. I have often felt that we learn more from our failures than our successes.

Michael Trucano
August 13, 2010

Hi Jag,

Thanks for your comments.

Although you may skeptical, I would not categorize this FAILfaire event as a "one time PR exercise". (If it was designed as such, I would expect that it would have featured in more places than two blog posts, one of which is on educational technology issues -- not exactly a topic front and center of the developmental agendas for most people at large international institutions like this one!)

For me, and for I think most people in the room, this was a great opportunity to learn. My hope is that events like this are signals, even if only faint ones, to colleagues within the educational technology community, as well to folks at the World Bank and other groups working on development issues, that it is possible to talk about these things more openly. Since making this blog post, I have received a lot of questions from people within this institution, and others like it, about how this sort of thing could be replicated internally. Will anything come out of such requests? I have no idea. Could this sort of thing turn into a PR exercise in the future? Sure it could. But that wasn't the case here.

As for your broader points -- I assume your questions are largely rhetorical, and you have made your point. I do understand that there is an impulse in some quarters to ascribe nefarious intent to *anything* that people who work at places like the World Bank do or say or write. Fair enough. But I would submit to you that organizations like this one are not as monolithic as some might like to believe, and if you browse through the archive of posts here on the EduTech blog, I think you'll find that my 'candor' is not 'new found'.


Michael Ehst
August 19, 2010

Mike - This reminds me of all the research that suggests technical (or other types of) innovation is more likely to happen in places with a low "punishment for failure". i.e. in some countries people that have started a failed business are looked upon as "failures" where in other places (Silicon Valley being the classic example), you are hardly respected as an entrepreneur until you've tried and failed at a few ideas.

Similar to what Susan suggests, it would be great to see HR and other policies at development institutions looked at through this lens. Otherwise, the incentives may encourage too many "safe" projects and easy to meet objectives, vs. the occasional higher-risk, high potential payoff projects.

Just a few quick thoughts. Good topic.


Michael Trucano
August 27, 2010

FYI The NY Times recently did a short article on the FailFaire event:
"In Twist, Nonprofits Honor Technology's Failures"

MobileActive has posted some thoughts and tips on how other organizations might conduct their own FailFaires.