Conferences are dime a dozen in the development sector. As a creed, we do love to talk perhaps because we cling onto the belief that the fight for progress and change begins with the free exchange of ideas. Mostly, I tend to ignore these notifications about conferences – they tend to become old quite quickly. However, when an email about an upcoming conference centered on ‘Impact Failure’ landed up in my inbox in February 2018, I was intrigued.
It was the first time in the five years that I had spent in the sector that I came across a conference that wanted to talk about the elephant in the room. Most of the people one encounters in this sector are optimists (not to say that they are naive); if we weren’t, we would burn out sooner, and maybe that’s why despite the many, many intractable failures we encounter during the course of our work, we choose not to delve into them too much.
The fear of failure is the sunk cost of doing something. As with any industry, many of our ideas fail — sometimes spectacularly.
However, the nature of our work always entails considerable human cost, often from half-abandoned projects or non-starter ideas. The failed launch of a new variant of chewing gum could hurt the careers of hundreds of people at most but the repercussions from a failed cost-effective drinking water program might span entire generations, compromising the health and well-being of children who aren’t even born.
So, in the days leading up to the event, I looked forward to listening to people talk candidly about instances where their efforts failed, how they handled it, and how we, as a sector, can build resilience against failure. At the conference, it was good to hear many development sector stalwarts talk about how they coped with obstacles and built a culture of learning within their organisation (with varying degrees of success).
At the same time most speakers agreed that while failure is acknowledged internally, it is still dressed up for the sake of funders and donors who may not always want to hear the bad news.
The human cost of failure is undoubtedly a heavy cross to bear, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. As Vijay Mahajan, co-founder of Pradan and BASIX and one of the guest speakers at the Impact Failure Conference put it: “Life ko thoda lightly lena hain” (One needs to lighten up sometimes)
In a way I think what Mr Mahajan was speaking about was humility — the best amongst us are sometimes guilty of infantilising the poor.
Our failures linger with us because we believe (in our misguided arrogance) that they lend a crippling blow to the lives of the people who trusted us, heard us out and worked side by side with us. By whipping ourselves for failures, we end up mythologizing them, instead of treating them as what they are — beta versions, an opportunity to do better.
At Rang De, we focus on providing access to finance for low-income segments. Over the course of a decade and more than 60,000 loans later, we have piled up our own share of failures. More often than not, these failures stemmed from poor adherence to processes. Faced with steep targets and with an eye on scale, a crucial step was bypassed
In some cases, course correction was easily carried out because regular monitoring and honest evaluation ultimately forced us take tough calls. In other cases, like Schrodinger’s cat, the program / partnership continued to exist in a state of limbo — you can’t declare it dead because too much time and money has been invested in it already, and you can’t take it to scale because the data from the field does not justify an increased commitment.
Other times, the failure arose from inadequate planning at the preliminary stage — data gathering tools were not representative enough, not enough time had been spent on analysing operational risks, with the result that risk mitigation strategies proved to be insufficient. In such cases, taking a hiatus to re-examine the field data helped in bringing some of the programs back on track.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the failure of a program at Rang De has been human resources.
Field staff attrition shakes things up not just for an organisation but also for its collaborators, partners and donors. Inadequate knowledge transfer means that a lot of time and energy is spent in covering old ground. Similarly, in the absence of a strong second rung leadership, decision-making can become centralised, resulting in critical delays in execution.
We have consciously tried to engage in frank conversations with our partners about succession planning. However, for resource-starved NGOs, high attrition rates is often a game changer.
Terminating a program or partnership prematurely because of operational issues is an extremely difficult decision to make, especially when you can put faces to this particular kind of failure. There is always an emotional toll on people making these decisions, but they have to be done. But how the organisation treats these failure is what would determine whether it is doomed to repeat the same mistakes again.
We have learned some lessons from these past mistakes and adapted our operational style accordingly.
For instance, an independent ‘Partnerships committee’ instituted by the organisation asks tough questions about each partner we try and on–board to make sure that we have done our homework.
We are getting better at vetting organisations by asking the right questions. With each partner we try and on-board, we are learning.
In instances where things do go wrong (and they will) it helps to have a framework to analyse, dissect and report failures. Organisations need to have long memories — for the sake of all the stakeholders, we need to have a way of recording and sharing lessons of our failures, to have a knowledge management system that is easily accessible and democratic.
Navel gazing might seem like a luxury but as custodians of public trust (and often, public money) it is our responsibility to be efficient and responsible change makers. For that, acknowledging that things fall apart despite our best intentions is a good place to start.
By Tanvi Negi
Tanvi Negi is the Chief Impact Officer at Rang De.