Fail to Learn, Learn to Fail.

In General Mish-Mash, Quick Mish-Mash on January 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Have you ever made a donation to assist the development of third world countries?

Often the donations are about infrastructure development – aimed at building a future more secure, more palatable, and more sustainable.

You know the old axiom – give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, give him a fishing pole and you feed him forever. (That’s not quite it, I know but you know what I mean.)

I often wonder whether it really works that way.

If it does, then surely we must be closing the gaps between the unsustainable and the sustainable – maybe even between the third and first worlds.

But the gaps don’t seem to be closing – we readily attribute this fact to multiple reasons. Continued increases in population, changes in climate, increased consumption by the first world, and – possibly the most popular one – corruption in 3rd world leadership.

It seems to me the gaps are widening rather than narrowing.

Perhaps one cause could be … failures in the systems & mechanisms used to devise, deliver, and evaluate development programs.

That is,  failures in the ways we try to help.

Now, you should know that I have no issue with the concept of failure – I do not see failure as something negative, I don’t think it is necessarily a pejorative term … except when it applies to the failure to learn from failure.

And this happens so often – primarily because we (and enterprises are especially deft at this this) tend to shove failure into the background. Rarely do we open up failure for examination and edification. And when we do, it is for the purpose of penalising rather than learning.

I thought this was a really insightful talk by David Damberger from Engineers Without Borders. For me it highlighted two things that I think are problematic in most enterprises:

1. Too much work is done to please the wrong people (in this case donors rather than those who are meant to benefit from initiatives). This creates a system that can’t deliver what is needed to the people who matter.

2. There is not enough made of the constructive side to failure (and too much emphasis placed on failure as reason for penalty rather than an opportunity – God knows how Thomas Edison would respond under the prevailing attitude to failure).

It may also be worth having a look at the website – Admitting Failure. This site was devised and created by Engineers Without Borders Canada.

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