I’ve been hearing a lot about failure lately: “I don’t want to admit that I have failed”, “Let’s re-frame these results so it doesn’t seem like we failed”.  Most of these comments have come from what I consider to be successful people, running successful programs and businesses.  Why is this conversation coming up about failure?

People are trying new things.  We live in a complex world that requires innovation to adapt and improve our approaches.  It’s courageous to try something new, especially when we’ve received funding and feel like we’re accountable for results.  Innovation requires a certain kind of risk, because we are doing something we aren’t actually sure will work.  If we already new what would work, and if our context never changed, we could confidently continue what we are already going. 

Why is innovation so important?

We live in a changing world with new challenges, complexity, and ever-shifting influences.  Innovation allows us to imagine new solutions.  This requires a lot of leadership and willingness to learn.

Why is innovation so hard?

We may understand the need to change, simply because we know our approach needs to improve or because we can envision a better way.  Knowing change is needed, however, isn’t the same as knowing what to do about it.  Until we try something, we don’t know if it will work: we are operating in a constellation of needs, stakeholders, funding, relationships and other pressures that will impact the best-laid plans.  We can’t know how something will work until we try it.  Trying something new means exposing ourselves to a world of unknowns.  Our challenge is to act with our best information, intentions and approach.  Then we need to reflect, because there will be nuances to our experience that can teach us a great deal about how we might move forward effectively.  Listening carefully is the key to our ability to learn and improve, bringing a clear understanding of what didn’t work forward, just as much as what did work. 

I am much more worried about failure of imagination, failure to act, and failure to reflect, than I am about hearing “this completely failed, let’s learn from it.”  The very reason that we tried something new was to see if it worked.  If it didn’t, let’s not repeat it, and let’s understand why. 

How do we as evaluators create a safe space to talk about failure? It’s a conversation that helps us evolve and grow as a profession.  It’s key to supporting our clients to benefit from their experience; saying something failed shouldn’t be about admitting weakness, it should be about celebrating a new approach and building collective wisdom around how it worked, what didn’t work, and what lessons can be learned and shared.

What can we do to support talking about failure?

·         Create a safe space for the conversation

·         Make it clear from the beginning that learning is the goal

·         Focus on the experiment, not the success or failure of the organization carrying it out

If we knew exactly how to do something, it wouldn’t be innovation. We can create the opportunity to build on our failures through innovation, action, and reflection.

 
 
As planners and evaluators we have an important and influential role in supporting decision-making,  but we are ultimately advisors. How can we exercise leadership in our role while respecting the role of final decision-makers?  I've found a few approaches that help:

1. Help identify decision-makers
2. Facilitate the development of terms of reference, scope of decisions or decision-making criteria
3. Ensure that organizational values are reflected in the plans and evaluation framework
4. Articulate evaluation findings and recommendations in a language and format that meets the needs of decision-makers
5. Time work to accommodate upcoming decisions and information needs

Good governance is important to everyone and we are responsible for contributing to a sound decision-making process.  We can take leadership in strengthening the decision-making process in an advisory role.