How failure to learn from our failures affects every organization.

A friend and former colleague who knows of my interest and passion for better understanding failure had forwarded a link to me a few months back for  The site is hosted by Ashley Good from the group Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWBC).  Ashley launched the site in January 2011 as part of a growing movement in bringing transparency to failures in the international development sphere.  The people working in the non-profit sector are not much different to those working in for-profit businesses when it comes to failure.  A statement from the site notes that “The development community is failing…to learn from failure.  Instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them away out of fear and embarrassment.”

What I found so interesting about this story is the impact that failure can have in the development community.  When we talk about failure in the for-profit sector the negative consequences usually affect things like our pride, reputation, or chances for promotion.  In some cases it might impact our wealth or future employment but never will it have a life or death impact.  In the development world failures will almost certainly have lethal consequences.  For example, EWBC works with rural Africans in Zambia, Malawi, Ghana and Burkina Faso to improve access to clean water and critical infrastructure, increase local farm yields, and support business opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Every time limited resources might be wasted on a “failed” concept in the development community it can cost lives.  That part is worth repeating… “it can cost lives.”

So if the consequences are that high maybe we should make sure that everyone has the chance to learn from these failures so that we can avoid those same mistakes in the future?  These stories shared and the lessons learned on is just such an attempt to learn from these mistakes.  The truth is that the site has only a couple of dozen stories shared but this is a start, it is a platform that can be used to archive, catalog, and search failed initiatives.  In taking action to learn from their mistakes I have to say that this non-profit can teach a valuable lesson to their for-profit counterparts.

Back in April 2011 David Damberger delivered a TED Talk titled “What happens when an NGO admits failure” at TEDxYYC that describes the work being done by EWBC and the important role of

Food for thought:

  • How does your organization share failures?  Would this be possible across your industry?
  • Is your organization able to capture and share these lessons learned from failure?
  • What can for-profit industries learn from this model of sharing failure?

2 replies to “ How failure to learn from our failures affects every organization.”

  1. Matt Hunt | Jan 11, 2013, 10:10 am

    It was nice to see that the NY Times Blog picked up on the importance of this idea too!

Leave a comment. Comments from first-time registrants are moderated.

Signup for Matt's Periodic Updates

Receive periodic email updates from Matt Hunt including his published pieces, updates on his progress, and more!