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Turning Failures into Teachable Moments

Darshana Patel's picture

Everyone likes a happy ending and this applies in development work too.  Quite often, we have the tendency to showcase our successes through best practices that are upheld as evidence that a particular approach works. But what about those instances when we may have made some mistakes along the way or failed outright? Humans have a tendency to focus on successes rather than failures.

"This [handling of failure] is difficult for us to do well because we have strong human bias to value successes more than we value failures. In most organizations failure is stigmatized and nobody wants to be associated with it…..Unfortunately this produces some dangerous side-effects. Since improbable failures have high information content, it is important to communicate information about failure quickly and widely throughout the organization. To the extent that we hinder the flow of this information, we will force people to reinvent failures that we have already experienced, and that generates no useful new information."

This excerpt comes from a book on computer science. In another field, medical scientists must document failure after failure in medical trials in order to assess the effectiveness of a vaccine. In these scientific disciplines, learning from failure leads to eventual success.  I think this message applies in development work too.  An article on knowledge management that I recently came across discussed how scientists at NASA pay little attention to success while the opposite is true in development work.  (A fascinating paper produced by ODI bridges the two worlds of science and development so that the former can inform the latter.) 

In development work, documenting our failures is equally critical because these moments are opportunities for learning and reflection - the so-called “teachable moments.” For example, engaging with broader publics has always been a difficult area and we need lessons from our failures in order to get better at doing this. But quite often, we plead 'sensitivities' when asked to illuminate these teachable moments in multi-stakeholder engagements.  In truth, we have no real incentives to honestly talk about our failures.  Admitting to failure is the end of a conversation, not the beginning of one.

Too many stories of success and little discussion of the challenges can only serve to reinforce and legitimize the status quo without adding any new learning. As the Knowledge Bank, capturing and learning from our mistakes must be an explicit part of our agenda.  But how do we do this and more importantly, who will be the first to fess up?  

 Photo Credit: Flickr User nathanrussell


Darshana, excellent post! Some time ago I launched the idea of having a Failcamp (, following the example of the non-profit sector in the UK. Shifting the focus from producing "lessons learned" documents(which most of the times turn out to be rather sanitised PR pieces) to opening up spaces for honest conversations about failures must be the way to go. Cheers, Giulio

In order to learn from failure, it is necessary to de-stigmatize failure, make it acceptable to talk about failure. Failure can be very costly. Failure to learn is even more costly. I have also written elsewhere ( that the opportunity to learn exists whether it is a failure, a success, or something in between.

Learning from failure is very difficult in environments where the word itself, "failure", is almost taboo. There is a need to establish a learning culture, a culture where it is acceptable to talk about failure, to analyze it, to identify root causes and to move on with improved processes or approaches. I have written elsewhere (briefly) about the fact that there are opportunities to learn whether it is a failure, a success, or something in between. (See "Learning from Success and Failure" @ Barbara Fillip

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