Unsuccessful development initiatives offer vital lessons — but only if we are open about failure, says Ben Taylor.
I was recently involved in a public declaration of failure. An innovative development programme I ran didn’t come close to meeting its targets, so we shut it down. And we went further, publicly declaring that the programme had failed and striving to share lessons from the failure as widely as possible.
Embracing failure can be uncomfortable, but it plays a hugely valuable role in the learning and improvement process. We need to be more honest — and more encouraging of honesty.
The Maji Matone story
Our idea was a simple one: to give people in rural Tanzania a means of using their mobile phones to report broken down waterpoints — handpumps, wells and standpipes — and to work with the media to put pressure on the government to get the problems fixed.
The initiative, called Maji Matone, was run by a small Tanzanian NGO, Daraja, in partnership with Twaweza, an independent initiative focusing on large-scale change in East Africa. Additional funds came from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). It met a clear need: nearly half of the waterpoints in rural Tanzania were not working at the time, and even minor breakdowns can go unrepaired for months or years. 
We received a lot of attention. Our approach ticked the right boxes: citizens’ participation, transparency, technology, innovation, accountability and the use of mobile phones. I was invited to conferences all around the world to talk about it and we got considerable media coverage before the programme had even started. 
Sadly, the reality did not live up to the promise. Rather than the 3,000 text messages we had expected in our pilot, we got 53, despite our best efforts to promote the service.
Why did it fail? I covered this extensively in my blogs , so I won’t repeat it all now. Instead, I want to explain what happened when we went public with our failure.
We consulted with staff, partners and our board on the decision to declare Maji Matone a failure. Not everyone was happy: staff had concerns about job security, and our board feared for the organisation’s reputation. But we had enough support, including — crucially — from our key funding partners, Twaweza and DFID, to go ahead with our plan to embrace failure, learn lessons and share widely.
We took the story on the road. I wrote a series of blog posts. We started accepting the conference invitations that I had been turning down. We were in the UK-based Guardian newspaper again. 
It was a popular story. There were a few negative responses, with people pointing to things that they argued should have been obvious from the beginning (although everything’s obvious in hindsight).
But the vast majority were positive: I heard many variants on the phrase “rare and refreshing honesty”. We got surprise, respect and gratitude.
Disincentives for honesty
The surprised and supportive audience for our story is revealing. It shows that our openness about failure is rare. And yet, if we’re honest, failure itself is common.
There are strong disincentives for honesty in the development industry. Donors don’t like being associated with a failed initiative, particularly in the era of the results agenda. NGO communications and fundraising teams can be even more firmly against frank admissions of failure.
And admitting failure is often punished — by lost funding or career opportunities, for example.
But this is akin to shooting the messenger: punishing admissions of failure doesn’t prevent failures from happening, it just stops us from learning from them. Lessons get lost and ineffective programmes muddle onwards.
By contrast, the world of business deals with failure well. A new product that nobody’s buying gets dropped by managers pretty quickly — the bottom line demands it. In development, we don’t have such a clear bottom line, so failures are swept under the carpet or not recognised at all.
Punishing failure doesn’t just leave ineffective programmes unchallenged. It also discourages people and organisations from taking the relatively high risks that innovation entails.
So what can we do to embrace failure more effectively?
First, put a premium on learning. Development practitioners, particularly at the innovative end of the spectrum, need to be thinkers as much as doers. Encourage critical reflection and the wide sharing of lessons.
Second, recognise and appreciate honesty. Distrust the PR that has become integral to the development industry and recognise that value comes in many forms — learning from a failed project can contribute just as much to the bigger development picture as if the project itself had succeeded. Our programme represented appalling value for money in one sense, but excellent value for money in another: the lessons it offered.
Our experience is that admitting failure — done wholeheartedly, honestly and with a clear focus on learning — does not carry the reputational risks that are so feared. Daraja, Twaweza and DFID all came through this process with their credibility enhanced rather than diminished. From honesty comes trust.
And it’s not just the organisations that benefit. Being personally associated with a public failure has been, on balance, a positive experience. It’s earned me far more credibility as a thinker and analyst than I lost through the negative associations of failure. It may be hard to believe, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.