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Why Talking About Failure Matters?

Aleem Walji's picture

Aleem Walji at FailFaire Event on Monday, July 26th, 2010

How many of us succeed the first time we try something? I would venture to guess not many. But how often do we talk about what we learn from failure, how we would do things differently, and what others could do to avoid making the same mistakes as us? I would guess not often. But in dealing with technology, it's vitally important to do it, and do it quickly.

That was precisely the spirit of Fail Fare imagined and convened by MobileActive, self described as a global community of people using mobile for social impact. Given the proliferation of the mobile phone in places where you wouldn't expect (rural Africa and remote Asia), mobile is suddenly the platform of choice for private enterprises, NGO's and increasingly of government ministries trying to reach poor and underserved communities. That much is clear.  

What is unclear is the track record of these interventions; how many of them succeed, and what we can learn from those that don't. In the growing field of ICT for Development, many projects fail but technology continues to be a primary driver of economic development and social mobility. How do we square that circle? Most projects do not succeed but those that do have huge impact. How about trying to learn lessons from projects that succeed in achieving social impact and avoiding common pitfalls from those that don't. After all, rapid prototyping (i.e. try fast, fail fast, iterate) is standard practice in the technology community and shorter cycle times is not only good for deploying scarce resources but just good business.

FailFaire Presenters - Monday, July 26th, 2010That's why the World Bank decided to partner with MobileActive in hosting Washington, DC's first Fail Fare on the topic of ICT4D and M4D (Information Communications Technology for Development and Mobile for Development). Why do we sweep rich and didactic stories of failure under the rug?

Imagine if we talked about what we learned and celebrated failure as an opportunity to learn and avoid making the same mistakes. Although many made presentations "off the record" given the risks involved in talking openly about failure, all the speakers were courageous, honest, and candid about what they did wrong and how they would do differently the next time around.

Perhaps Fail Faires that were done internally could encourage even more people inside their organizations to share stories, distill lessons, and make the case that "brilliant failures" are perhaps more valuable for organizational learning and growth than accidental successes. 

In the spirit of Open Data, Open Knowledge, and Open Solutions comes Fail Fare. How can we honestly hope to do better if we can't be honest about learning from our mistakes? 


To read techchange's take on the FailFaire, click here.

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