THE BLOG
04/28/2014 12:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2014

Shh... Let's Talk About How We Need to Fail More in International Development

In business, the mark of a true leader is one willing to talk about his mistakes and failures c.f. Jack Welch's famous -- "I've learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.", or AG Lafley in the Harvard Business Review's whole issue on failure. We learn from our mistakes, they make us more agile and adaptable, they lead to development and growth. In the business world, there's also a different word for failure without negative undertones -- R&D (research and development), and in many industries this is big money. Pharmaceutical companies now spend on average $5 billion developing new drugs, and most of the cost is down to the 95 percent failure rate of drugs that are initially tested on humans -- 19 out of 20 of the promising experimental medicines fail before ever being brought to market.

Yet, in the non-profit world, discussing failure is still a bit hush hush. It's not always easy to show over the short-term or even the long-term whether your project has failed or succeeded especially when you're trying to change behaviors and systems rather than vaccinate people (I am not saying measuring the success of a vaccination campaign is trivial either). There's a whole conversation going on around how to be better at measuring progress and impact and that plays a big role in the failure to talk about failure. (For a nice example of why setting up measurement systems are useful, you can revisit the controversy around the Millennium Villages and the lack of initial control group.) The incentives to acknowledge failure are also not there -- donors are more likely to give money next year to organizations who've succeeded and whether you are a government, a corporate, or a philanthropist, you don't want to see that your money was wasted when it's about saving lives.

The issue with this thinking is that it inherently biases the international development community to take less risk, to innovate less, and ultimately we're all less likely to invest in the ideas that will lead to disruptive breakthroughs. On paper, providing mobile services to sub-Saharan Africans in the early '90s was never going to work and traditional investors shunned Mo Ibrahim's venture, Celtel, to provide mobile services to Sub-Saharan Africa. The CDC Group, an investment arm of the British aid agency (arguably the first impact investor), and the IFC (World Bank) were willing to take the risk -- the investment proved both very profitable and has undeniably contributed to economic development for the millions of Africans who now own SIM cards. These 'big bets' are also what Bill Gates would like philanthropists to invest more in, and he sees his role as a private foundation to take more risk, go where the private and public sectors won't go. In a sense, failing more is a necessity if we are truly going to tackle the biggest challenges.

Even if you're not Bill Gates and you can't take big bets at the same level as he can (because, let's face it, none of us are and can), thinking about whether you are failing enough to really push the boundaries of your work towards greater impact is essential.

You should also think about whether you're failing fast enough. It will always take some time to see whether your project is having real and lasting impact in the non-profit world -- you're trying to change people's lives after all and that's never instantaneous. However, too often it's only after five years and an in-depth evaluation that a project's impact is really analyzed and that's a long time if it's failing or if there would have been a better way to go about it. Eric Ries's Lean Startup focuses on entrepreneurs creating minimum viable products that come to market quickly and can be iterated with high customer feedback. These same principles could be extremely valuable to the world of social enterprises and non-profit impact, which is exactly what a new organization called Lean Impact seeks to do.

Ultimately, urgency and risk are essential to solve the world's greatest and most complex challenges -- and we won't get there without getting serious about failure.