Let me begin by saying by loser, I really mean one who is not the winner, not attributing any more judgement than is in the word itself, though that’s easier said than done. I refer to some one who has not been able to perform the way one would have otherwise considered representative of a winner. Its an age old phenomena but we constantly tell ourselves its OK to play, its OK to come second, its OK as long as you are trying. But truly in our heart of hearts we are saying, “oh I wish you would get it (win).”
The same ideology follows when we talk about social development programming. The primary reason being that the same people in their “real” lives would be of the kind I described above. So with this inherent contradiction in our selves, it is not hard to imagine that we would be uncomfortable to say the least in dealing with the losers within our areas of work.
One cant disassociate how the reality TV is in fact a mirror to our own reality, oh well may be not a mirror per se, but indulge me a bit. The worst cooks of america, for instance will chop off its worst cook first! Isn’t it in contradiction to the name of the show? Anyway, I digress.
Coming back to my area of interest, international development. I have been in this field long enough to hear at least a few hundreds of times the need to learn from failures. I have seen however the opposite, in most meetings we call the best lessons to share their stories and rarely ever have I heard anyone being invited to speak either at a meeting or even when program development is being undertaken invitation sent to those who failed. This is coming back to me in many ways the challenge as a society we have with losers. Our social systems tend to discourage this kind of analysis of failure. We will want to talk to losers when they have other successes to describe and make references to how they were actually successful because of the failure. So in turn we are only talking to them when they were successful and they cite their failure as their lesson. Had they been unsuccessful yet again we would not have bothered with knowing what they learnt from their failure the first time.
However, the flip side of this coin is, how do we talk about bad programming or failures. There is great commentary from Jessica here
where she says its not that there is no value in sharing failure information but that its repercussion may not portend well for the organization that voices it. However the point I think we are missing is that by talking about failure we are not just talking about bad management alone but failure to speak up against ill conceived programs. But then again it is the “culture” of avoiding a conversation about how we do not like to talk about what may not work. Perhaps if there was enough conversation on what does not work and why rather than heartily believing in an idea is not enough. We need to ask hard questions. As an industry we need to not shy away from critics or nay sayers.
Celebrating failure is not what I am suggesting. Admitting failure is very different from learning from failure and sharing that. Though admitting can include sharing lessons but not always. That’s the difference between celebrating and learning. You can celebrate the learning but you cant learn from celebrations alone. Its the reflection that takes losers in stride as much as it wants to laud the successes which is necessary. Its holding both in same esteem that I think as a society we fail to do. When we exalt the success stories to the level that we do, we are conveying the message that failure is really never acceptable and therefore lets not talk about it.
There is a lot riding on us, not just tax payers money. There are millions of real lives that are being spun in this feel good idea that we are afraid to question because of the fear of losing. We want to ‘get it’ and win! The reality is not rosy in solving complex, socially and politically contextual development problems. We need to better treat our losers but at the same time we need not be afraid of losing and reflecting why we did.
Note: I recommend reading “The hard work of failure analysis“.