Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Are we reinventing broken wheels? Let’s talk about the ‘F’ word

By Penelope Beynon

A common saying goes "The only real failure in life is the failure to try."  I disagree.

I think the worst failure in life (and in knowledge brokering) is the repetition of an established mistake. That is to say, the worst failure is the failure to learn.

In recent months, I have come across an increasing number of websites, discussions and articles that almost celebrate failure, in an effort to foster a culture of sharing and learning from others’ mistakes. The Engineers Without Borders (EWB) website Admitting Failures is a good example. In their own words:

"By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success."

While I agree with the premise, often times it is not fully realised.
Image from:

Ironically, perhaps, several of the ‘failures’ admitted on the EWB website are, in fact, examples of people’s failure to learn from past mistakes – their own and those of others. That is, they are reinventing broken wheels, sometimes under the guise of 'innovation'.

Innovation is important for progress, and with innovation comes a certain level of risk. But I think these risks need to be calculated and one of the key considerations should be a thorough investigation of whether this particular experiment is truly an innovation or whether it has already been tested elsewhere. That is, an honest commitment to learning before doing as well as learning after doing. I hear the echo of Catherine’s recent blog where challenges knowledge brokers to practice what they preach .

Lessons identified or lessons learnt? 

Learning is a big theme for the Impact and Learning Team at IDS  and we have recently been thinking a lot about the difference between a lesson identified and a lesson learned.

In our view, a lesson is only really 'learned' when the implications of the lesson are acted upon. Far too often we see After Action Reviews and evaluation documents that recite from their own experience ‘lessons’ that are insights long established internally and already documented in the experience of others (e.g. developing partnerships takes time, communication matters, etc.). Very seldom does anyone pick up that the worst failure here was not the failure to communicate but the failure to identify ahead of time that communication matters and to learn from others’ experiences about how to do it well.

One outstanding example of a lesson that was learned (albeit the hard way) is retold by Lieven Claessen, a researcher from the International Potato Centre (CIP),s  in two short videos produced the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)'s ICT-KM programme.

In the first video, Claessens identifies the lessons by bravely telling a rather sobering story about his failure to communicate research findings in a way that people likely to be affected could understand and use for decision making. Had the findings of his 2007 research been acted on, the devastating effects of the 2010 mudslides in Eastern Uganda could have been mitigated, potentially saving the lives of hundreds of people and the livelihoods of hundreds more.  In his second video, Claessens evidences his learning by telling how he has changed his approach and commitment to communicating research to ensure he does not repeat this same mistake.

I find Claessens' story deeply moving for two reasons.

Firstly, I take my hat off to anyone who owns up to their part in a failure with such devastating consequences. Especially where that failure could as easily have been passed off to someone else.

Secondly, I find the story unique in its clarity about the link between research communication and wellbeing outcomes. Or, in this case failure to communicate research and negative outcomes. Often that link is much less clear for knowledge brokering. In fact, just as it is difficult (if not impossible) to evidence attribution of development outcomes to knowledge brokering work, it is equally difficult (if not impossible) to evidence negative development outcomes to failure in the same area. Perhaps this provides something of a safety net that allows us to distance ourselves from consequences, or maybe it is one of the reasons that it is apparently so hard to talk about failure in the knowledge brokering arena.