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Published on: 16/01/2013

 Water services that last or failed investments?


It’s much more fun to talk about successes than disappointments. But, from personal experience, I know that the things that don't work out as planned are often the most powerful catalysts of new insights and new behaviour. Failure from which we learn, holds the essence of future breakthroughs: "A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.'"(~James Joyce)

Let's take a minute to look at the positive role that experimentation and failure can play in fuelling a process of continuous improvement.

In development work – just like in business ventures, personal endeavours and public sector initiatives, things often go wrong. Reality doesn't always follow the course stipulated in the project proposal or business plan. Admission of 'failure’ can actually fuel a process of learning.  However, in the development sector, admitting failure is seen to jeopardise or undermine the whole endeavour.

In his blog 'The painful acknowledgement of coming up short' (2010) CASE Foundation director, Jean Case says: "It sometimes feels like philanthropic efforts are held to a different standard than in the private or public sectors. All too often there is less tolerance for mistakes, which leads many organisations to become risk-adverse. And when mistakes are made, the tendency is to sweep them under the carpet – thus depriving the sector of important lessons learned. But in reality, the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks. Sometimes they will work, other times they won’t – but in all cases, we should learn from our experiences and strive to do even better in the future."

Fostering the courage to experiment and learn from failure

What do we mean when we talk of ‘failure’? Apparently, after Thomas Edison created the lightbulb he said that he did not fail thousands of times; rather he  was successful at figuring out thousands of ways not to do it. If we want to innovate and improve, we need to be willing to take risks and experiment. And by providing a safe environment for people to reflect on what does not work, we collectively accelerate the process of finding what does.

In the WASH sector, failure directly impacts on people and the environment. When water doesn't flow, or it isn't clean, when toilets break down or there is no system to safely get rid of the waste, then people get sick and may even die. It's imperative that we commit to doing better: to learning from failure, to supporting innovation and continuous improvement.

Communicating failure makes our lessons more accessible to others, while also making it more acceptable for others to admit to and learn from mistakes.

Jean Case wrote about challenges related to the Playpump, a water pump that operates in a similar way to a windmill-driven water pump: while children play, they push the merry-go-round, pumping clean water into a storage tank. The idea is great: clean water, and a fun play experience for the kids. However there are many challenges around management, maintenance and sustainability of Playpumps.

Ensuring that water flows and toilets continue to work are complex challenges.  Communicating about what does not work and what we have learned is helpful for an individual, organisation/project and the sector as a whole. Acknowledging failure stimulates self-reflection, feedback and knowledge-sharing. Communicating failure makes the lessons more accessible to others, while also making it more acceptable for others to admit to and learn from mistakes.

Inspiring examples

Lessons ignored have a high cost. However, when much of the focus in a sector is on implementation, learning and adaptive management are often overlooked as key elements of a well performing sector. Commitment to continuous improvement is essential for better service delivery and better use of sector resources. It's encouraging to see development professionals in the WASH sector and elsewhere strive for transparency about failure and put efforts into learning for improvement. Here are just a few examples to reflect on.

The Sanitation Community of Practice  (SanCoP) brings academics, NGO practitioners and other sector professionals together to learn about selected topics. In November 2012, they discussed the potentials and pitfalls of learning from failure in sanitation (read the blogposts by Aliki Zeri and by Stephen Jones about the key issues of debate, conclusions and dilemmas). This community of practice makes a consistent effort to share and build on experience (both success and failures).

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) have a great website that includes a blog where organisations can share their stories about dealing with failure, and 'fail fairs' where people come together and learn. They also publish an annual Failure Report where they list some of their notable failures over the past year and organise ‘safe spaces’ for experimentation and learning.

The Triple-S project suggests how multi-stakeholder learning and real world experiments can help rural water services and aims for sector-wide and systemic change.  The approach brings together broad sector platforms for learning. Testing innovations at scale (district-wide/ regionally) in the 'messy real world environment' gives a more realistic picture of their potential and the resources required..

In the private sector, global consulting firm Arup sets an example by rewarding and supporting innovation and cross-sectoral collaboration: experimentation and learning are facilitated through 'failsafe learning environments' with collaborators from the academic, design and creative worlds. They work together in cooperative research centres, industry partnerships and open innovation platforms.

Tim Harford argues: "the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes." Sarah Rapp presents some insights from Harford's book 'Adapt: why Success always starts with Failure' in her blog 'The Recipe for Successful Adaptation'. I've also been inspired by an interesting discussion triggered by a Ian Thorpe's blogpost 'Failure without borders'.

What inspiring examples of learning from failure would you like to add to this list? 




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