- The problem with focusing so much on unearthing positive or affirmative evidence is that we humans often learn more from our failures than from our successes, write David Wilkie of WCS, Kara Stevens of the Walton Family Foundation, and Richard Margoluis of the Moore Foundation.
- People working to conserve nature and improve people’s lives may not report failures because they may worry about compromising their own and their organization’s reputations and jeopardizing future support.
- To address those concerns, the Failure Factors Initiative has been established to identify ways that individuals, teams and their organizations can grow to value failure, learn from it, and improve their decisions and actions.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
Evidence of success. It is the holy grail sought by teachers, health workers, engineers, natural resource managers, policy makers, and funders. Like us, all have the same wish: “Just let me know what works and I will replicate that.” But the problem with focusing so much on unearthing positive or affirmative evidence is that we humans often learn more from our failures than from our successes.
David loves to bake bread. Each time it is an experiment that relies on a never truly understood, almost magical, transformation of yeast, water, and flour into an airy, crispy, edible platform for butter, cheese, jam, or anything. When he makes a perfect loaf, he doesn’t think about it. He simply lets it cool (well, not always) and eats it gleefully with family and friends. But when he botches a new or even a tried-and-true recipe, he ponders deeply about why it failed and what must be done in the future to avoid repeating the same mistake.
Though bakers like David learn from their mistakes, they rarely if ever make them public. Along similar lines, people working to conserve nature and improve people’s lives may not report failures because they may worry about compromising their own and their organization’s reputations and jeopardizing future support. Neither organizations nor individual professionals who have worked hard to be regarded as experts are anxious to be associated with failure.
To address those concerns, WCS is taking the lead in launching what we are currently calling the Failure Factors Initiative. We hope to identify ways that individuals, teams and their organizations can grow to value failure, learn from it, and improve their decisions and actions, making our efforts to conserve nature and benefit humanity more effective and quicker to adapt to change.
We want everyone to happily describe and discuss things that turned out to be undoable, caused undesired outcomes, or just did not achieve the results that we wanted.
The trickiest element is ensuring a way to capitalize on our errors without stigmatizing those who made them. This requires a cultural shift both within institutions and between organizations and funders. The military, aviation and engineering sectors have long embraced failure to learn and adapt, and the tech sector is increasingly pushing for a similar cultural change. The development and conservation sectors have been slower to adopt.
You might assume that simply creating a safe space for sharing of unexpected outcomes, surprises, blunders, errors, and mistakes would allow us to more easily harvest the lessons offered by failure. Indeed it is not hard to imagine ways to allow people to talk about stuff that did not work out as expected without the fear of risking their reputations.
Using Chatham House Rules—a system for holding discussions on controversial topics established by the UK Royal Institute of International Affairs, based in Chatham House, London—is a proven approach to encourage open discussion unattributed to the speaker or their organization. Using an online survey that does not capture any information identifying the survey taker (e.g. their internet address) is another option for maintaining anonymity.
Both approaches avoid directly divulging the name of an individual or their organization. But merely reporting on something that did not work as expected may be enough for a savvy listener or reader to deduce the author of the story, particularly when embellished with sufficient detail to enable a clear understanding of what went wrong. The context that makes the failure story understandable and interpretable to others in similar or different contexts risks revealing its authors.
Thus, we face a dilemma. Even Chatham House Rules may inadvertently identify the storyteller, risking their reputation. At the same time, assured anonymity may demand a level of abstraction in the story telling such that its value as a lesson learned is lost. A failure story in the abstract simply states that a failure happened. Without the context surrounding the failure, we are unlikely to fully understand why it happened and change our behavior.
Hence the Failure Factor Initiative. Our goal is to encourage and value open discussion of things that did not work out as expected even within otherwise successful projects. We want to identify ways we can use these regular “confessions” within and across teams and organizations to learn faster and avoid the same pitfalls in the future.
And, in truth, like previous attempts to discuss and learn from failure, the Failure Factors Initiative itself might fail. That said, we argue that it is worth a try. Because as all bakers know, our recipes and techniques get better as we learn what works and—most importantly—what does not, and why.
Authors: David Wilkie is the Executive Director of Conservation Measures and Communities at the Wildlife Conservation Society; Kara Stevens is the Senior Strategy, Learning and Evaluation Department (SLED) Officer for the Walton Family Foundation; Richard Margoluis is the Chief Adaptive Management and Evaluation Officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Disclosure: Mongabay is a grantee of both the Walton Foundation and the Moore Foundation, but neither institution has editorial influence over our reporting.