Imagine that you’re having a conversation with the proud parent of a kindergartener who, after countless failed knots and temper tantrums, finally ties his own shoes. After smiling at the child, the parent looks at you and sighs: “It took him two solid weeks to figure out how to tie his shoes! What an embarrassment!”
Sure, two weeks of trying and trying again were probably frustrating for both the parent and the child, but that type of reaction from a parent would be strange. We know that a child needs time to master a new skill: instead of criticising kids for constantly failing until they finally succeed, we are more inclined to encourage their ongoing process of trial and error – we even find joy in it!
Ironically, once we enter the workplace, we have a tendency to stop welcoming this continuous learning. Our workplace culture is often one that pushes for perfection, leading us to fear that others will judge us as incompetent when we make mistakes. Peacebuilding organisations in particular face pressure from two key audiences: risk-averse donors, who push for tangible results, and the public, whom organisations fear alienating. For NGOs, the risk of failure is great: one mistake can easily reduce the impact for beneficiaries, compromise a reputation, or affect donor funding.
In this roller-coaster of pleasing donors and avoiding negative attention from the public or the media, we seem to forget that so-called “failures,” especially in a field as complex as peace building, are key to transformation and empowerment.
To be truly effective, peacebuilding requires tailor-made structural changes that are sustainable and consistent, but simultaneously adaptable to the unpredictable nature of intractable conflicts. This means not only that is failure unavoidable, but also that the raw learning experiences that it offers can spark innovation across different peacebuilding processes.
Take, for example, when one organisation tried to introduce solar ovens in Kenya and was surprised to receive physical threats. They learned that several Kenyan tribes consider it a taboo to cook outside. Importantly, they also learned the reason behind the taboo: during times of near starvation, cooking one’s food outside is considered insensitive. A failure like this highlights the risks of not carrying out a thorough context analysis before implementing a programme as well as the type of intricate details that a context analysis might not be able to detect early on. Knowing how to carry out a proper analysis is critical to any organisation working in the peacebuilding sector, but it is also extremely challenging in the myriad of constantly changing dynamics, different contradictory narratives, and limited resources that peacebuilding organisations often need to take into consideration.
Why and How Sharing Stories of Failure is a Tool for Learning
- Telling a story of failure can make us to reflect on our own experiences.
- Making stories accessible contributes to more transparency, which is necessary for accountability in the organisation, itself, and in the field as a whole.
- Sharing stories of failure can create the awareness necessary for another organisation to avoid the same mistake and encourage collective problem solving within the field.
Stories can be a platform for creative reflection and collective knowledge. Organisations that participate in this type of exchange with others in the field have the opportunity to gain access to best practices and avoid the costly mistakes others have already made. Just as important, by choosing a more vulnerable and honest public presence, these organisations can create a space for creative and effective problem solving.
So, donors should acknowledge that an organisation that shares stories of failure is dedicated to innovation through transparent reflective practice.
In fact, many donors already understand that! Veritus Group, the donor training and consulting agency, emphasises that telling donors the truth is one of the key ways to build trust—and, it usually has a positive outcome. Why? Because it radiates integrity, allows donors to deal with the realities on the ground, and shows that you value a long-term commitment over short-term wins. Donors want to be educated, and celebratory stories, alone, are not enough.
Breaking the Cycle of Mistakes: Where to Find Stories of Failure and How to Share Them
Examples of failure being celebrated:
- On a shared learning platform: The website Admitting Failure was created by an expert in development work from Engineers without Borders to reduce the inefficiency that compromises services offered by organisations. On the platform, NGOs, academics, practitioners, and other interested participants can share their stories of failure and lessons learned and read stories from others in their field. The peacebuilding organisation Search for Common Ground also runs a website for peacebuilding evaluation called “DM&E for Peace.” You can check out stories of failure and learning on the “DM&E for Peace” blog.
- In an organisational “failure” report: Engineers without Borders practices transparency and active reflection by publishing a yearly “failure” report.
It is important to remember that celebrating failure does not mean condoning harm, but rather argues against covering up failures that hinder peacebuilding work and contribute to a more reflective and insightful field.
Every organisation, academic, or practitioner that carries out work on the ground has valuable experiences that can make peacebuilding work more effective and responsive. Generations For Peace, for example, uses a number of different strategies to shed light on problems in their programmes and to share their learning, through their monitoring and evaluation processes and feedback loops mechanisms. Volunteers initiate participatory evaluation processes that not only allow participants of the programmes, but also other beneficiaries from the broader community, to provide feedback. This makes way for the harnessing of the community’s wisdom as a whole, thus creating a space for honest reflection and creative thinking around the question, “What could have been better – and how?”
Many of these stories, as well as the results of GFP programmes, are shared openly in a variety of ways, one of which is the organisation’s publications page, where Participatory Evaluation reports are shared as a resource for others venturing into the hard work of grassroots peacebuilding.
Sharing stories of failure and opening up the process of reflection to others in the peacebuilding field is a significant step in equipping practitioners on the ground and enriching the knowledge of an organisation. So, how can your failures create positive impact, and more importantly, are you willing to share them?