FailFaire: How to make failure a stepping stone to success

Have you ever considered that success and failure are two sides of the same coin? Do you think learning from failures is an extravagant and outlandish proposition? Would you agree that mistakes and failures are inherent in the human condition, and that there is no one on the face of the earth who has not failed?

No matter how you answered the above questions, on 29 October 2013, IFAD organized an event that challenged the common thinking around failure – and raised awareness about how learning from failure is a key to success. The event benefitted from the insights and experience of renowned personalities such as: Tim Harford, Aleem Walji, Dave Snowden and Ashley Good.

Tim Harford

Aleem Walji

Ashley Good

Dave Snowden

The complex world in which we live and work requires that both organizations and donors accept the fact that failure is a natural part of doing business. This, in turn, entails creating the right environment and space so that everyone can identify and honestly admit what has not worked and why an activity has failed.

The objective of this event was to:

  • recognize the causes of failure, understand the value of learning from failures and learn how to communicate about failures
  • find out why it is so important to be flexible and learn the art of adaptation so that we can deliver better investment projects
  • share, discuss and exchange failures without falling into the blame-game trap
  • change the perception that UN agencies and IFIs are reluctant to expose their failures

This event marked the beginning of a journey to help us learn how to capture lessons from projects and activities that do not scale up, are not sustainable, get tangled in bureaucracy or simply fail because of unanticipated circumstances.

It also helped us identify the structural and organizational changes required to anticipate, learn from and adapt to failures and explore whether 100 per cent success rate means checking all the boxes or if success means learning from failures and adapting.

Opening session

Fish bowl discussion

Closing session

Dress code

Thank you to the participants for taking note of the "dress code" requirements and for wearing your:

  • Constructive attire
  • Commit to learn gown
  • Participation garment
  • Humility and humour outfit

There was no need for bouncers to "undress" participants with snarky and blaming outfits.


About the speakers

  • Tim Harford, economist, writer, broadcaster, TEDTalk speaker, author of the million-selling The Undercover Economist and Adapt, will talk about what it takes to fail in a complex world, and about the fact that it is "normal" for development-related activities to fail. He will speak about how to overcome the fear of failing, how to fail on a survivable scale and how to spot a failure and fix it early – underscoring the importance of not being ashamed to admit failure, facing up to it and adapting. He will offer tools and tips to build the audience's ability to frame and respond to failures in a way that will lead to success.
  • Aleem Walji, director of the World Bank Innovation Labs overseeing open government, transparency and accountability initiatives at the Bank, will discuss what the impetus was for an institution such as the World Bank to start embracing the concept of learning from failures. In his talk, he will share what is happening behind the scenes at the Bank giving specific examples of how acceptance of failure has allowed them to deliver better programmes, exceed donor and stakeholder expectations and what it takes to make learning from failure an acceptable norm and practice in the development business.
  • Dave Snowden, a leader in knowledge management, is well known for his work on the role of narrative and sense-making as chief scientific officer at cognitive edge, father of the Cynefin framework and director at the IBM institute of KM, where led programmes on complexity. He will talk about how, in the complex world of development, logframes, and other linear mechanisms may be tools of the past and hinder rather than help progress and development.
  • Ashley Good, founder and CEO of FailForward, will speak about how fear of failure can inhibit innovation, adapting and growth. She will share her experience in helping organizations to learn, innovate and become failure-friendly.