FailFaire

That people need to learn in order to build a better world is a key idea motivating a lot of resilience projects, and learning requires failures that you can learn from.  In New York Times Stephanie Strom reports on FailFaire, an attempt to encourage learning from failure among the community of technology development professionals.  The article In Twist, Nonprofits Honor Technology’s Failures writes:

At a gathering last month over drinks and finger food, a specialist at the World Bank related the story of how female weavers in a remote Amazonian region of Guyana had against all odds built themselves a thriving global online business selling intricately woven hammocks for $1,000 apiece.

The state phone company had donated a communications center that helped the women find buyers around the world, selling to places like the British Museum. Within short order, though, their husbands pulled the plug, worried that their wives’ sudden increase in income was a threat to the traditional male domination in their society.

Technology’s potential to bring about social good is widely extolled, but its failures, until now, have rarely been discussed by nonprofits who deploy it. The experience in Guyana might never have come to light without FailFaire, a recurring party whose participants revel in revealing technology’s shortcomings.

“We are taking technology embedded with our values and our culture and embedding it in the developing world, which has very different values and cultures,” Soren Gigler, the World Bank specialist, told those at the FailFaire event here in July.

Behind the events is a Manhattan-based nonprofit group, MobileActive, a network of people and organizations trying to improve the lives of the poor through technology. Its members hope light-hearted examinations of failures will turn into learning experiences — and prevent others from making the same mistakes.

“I absolutely think we learn from failure, but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy,” said Katrin Verclas, a founder of MobileActive. “So I thought, why not try to start conversations about failure through an evening event with drinks and finger foods in a relaxed, informal atmosphere that would make it seem more like a party than a debriefing.”

On FailFaire’s blog, Ian Thorpe Reflects on Learning from Failure from a Failfaire Attendee:

A few shared lessons emerged which might also seem familiar to us in UNICEF: …

• People – not just technology – and process. Finding the right partners, listening to them and engaging them are critical success factors. A project that works well in one context might be ineffective in others if you don’t have the right partners and you don’t engage and make use of the skills and knowledge of the people you are working with.

• Make sure to pilot and test. Before scaling up a project, or before using it in a critical setting, make sure to have enough time to thoroughly test it and work out the kinks.

• Beware of “zombie” projects. If we are too attached to a “good idea” and have invested a lot of effort we are often unwilling to admit it is a failure and let go of it, and it keeps coming back from the dead, or it limps along unsuccessfully, not fully supported but still consuming valuable resources.

• Failures can lead to future successes. While a particular project might fail it can lead to new innovation and subsequent success. Look out for the learning and for the unexpected successful spin-off opportunities.

Some of these lessons might seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight – but it doesn’t stop them from recurring in development work.

As to the idea behind the event, I’m a strong believer in the value of learning from our mistakes if people would be willing to admit them and share them with others. This is challenging within a large publicly funded organization that places a lot of emphasis on delivering results and holding people accountable for them, but if we don’t do it we are at risk of continually repeating the same mistakes and in keeping alive our zombie projects because no-one wants to admit they are failing.

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