Phyllis Heydt from MDG Health Alliance. Photo credit: Sara Jacobs, New York
Phyllis Heydt from MDG Health Alliance. Photo credit: Sara Jacobs, New York

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A Edison

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Great inspiring men, great quotes, but why is it so difficult for the majority of people to talk about failure? This was one of the first discussions I had when I joined UNICEF’s Innovation Unit in August. The next thing on my mind was to organize an event, so I helped put together our second FAILFaire. This is an open source concept that promotes a series of events focusing on admitting and learning from failure in a safe and friendly environment.

In my product development studies, “Fail fast to success sooner” was one of the ideas continuously highlighted. Failure enables learning. In Design, it is all about the process of trying, failing, and trying again, because at some point, you learn the crucial lessons and are more likely to succeed. It is an iterative process. The more I learn about development, the more evident it becomes to me that organizations repeat the same mistakes over again because the culture of talking about failure is not widely accepted. The successes are reported on, the failures are filed away. Yet learning from our mistakes, and continuously applying those learnings back into the process and sharing them with others would make our work far more effective. We talk a lot about not re-inventing the wheel – but maybe we should talk more about not re-doing the failures.

Katrin Verclas, one of the founders of FAILFaire, moderated the event. Photo credit: Christopher Fabian, New York
Katrin Verclas, one of the founders of FAILFaire, moderated the event. Photo credit: Christopher Fabian, New York

The FAILFaire took place at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF on November 19th. We had 9 brilliant speakers from various UN agencies, programmes and initiatives, as well as from non-profit organizations, and the private sector. We specifically wanted to focus on failure to scale – “scaleures” – because this is the biggest challenge in development right now. Anyone can build 400 wells or help 5,000 people at a time, but real change will only be possible when we are working on solutions in the same magnitude as the problems that we are trying to address.

Michael TS Lindenmayer, Co-Founder of Toilet Hackers. Photo credit: Christopher Fabian, New York
Michael TS Lindenmayer, Co-Founder of Toilet Hackers. Photo credit: Christopher Fabian, New York

The biggest takeaways from the evening included the importance of a user or customer centered approach, building upon previous experience, working with the right partners, and learning across organizations. We tend to be siloed in our own teams, departments and organizations, yet the underlying reasons for our failures are fairly common whether we are dealing with sanitation in Cambodia or Solar Kiosks in Ghana.

Jeff Chapin from CommonMade. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, New York
Jeff Chapin from CommonMade. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, New York

I myself had several failures in organizing FAILFaire. The standard FAILFaire guidelines ask for all presentations to be ignite style – 5 minutes, 30 seconds per slide using auto-timing. Despite making a Speaker’s Guide and organizing prep calls, I did not adequately emphasize the importance of this format. As a result, only 3 out of 9 speakers followed the guidelines, and ended up going over the allotted time. Lesson learned: Make the presentation format the number one requirement for the speakers.

Irena Bakić
Intern, Innovation Unit, New York
ibakic(at)unicef.org

William Kennedy from the UN Office for Partnerships. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, New York
William Kennedy from the UN Office for Partnerships. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, New York

Summary of the presentations: learn it, apply it and share it

William Kennedy from the UN Office for Partnerships showcased e-CARE (e-commerce and renewable energy), a market-based approach to the provision of off-grid ICT services to rural and peri-urban communities in Ghana. The project failed at building a sustainable model with partners.

Jeff Chapin from CommonMade discussed failures in sales strategies in the scale-up of a sanitation marketing program in rural Cambodia.

Phyllis Heydt from MDG Health Alliance presented an innovative model for early breast cancer detection, which failed at increasing profit margins after two years.

Michael TS Lindenmayer, Co-Founder of Toilet Hackers, shared various examples of failures in his work. Toilet Hackers have been organizing Sanitation Hackathons around the world, but they only reached global scale after partnering with the right organizations and private sector partners. “If you try to do something alone, it doesn’t work.”

Sarah Telford from UN OCHA presented the failure of OCHA’s OneReponse website, which was originally created as a place for humanitarian partners to share operational information in a crisis. The website failed to consider user needs and behavior in the design phase.

Tala Dowlatshahi shared her experience with Reporters Uncensored, a Web TV and podcast series of independently produced news and interviews on a range of global issues. The project failed at finding the right channel and reaching a wider audience.

Corinne Woods, Director of United Nations Millennium Campaign, UNDP, shared her experience with an online engagement project, which failed at reaching a big enough audience despite the wide network of partners involved in the campaign.

Rajesh Anadan, Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and UNICEF Ventures at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, shared his journey of learning from failure in re-thinking the UNICEF Trick or Treat campaign.

Christopher Fabian, UNICEF’s Advisor on Innovation to the Executive Director, delivered the closing remarks. Christopher referred to the Key Principles fundamental for UNICEF’s Innovation work and how they have been key ingredients in the success of developing scalable solutions for the most marginalized children. One of the lessons Christopher has learned in his work is that everything built in New York for UNICEF’s 135 country offices fails! The 100 percent failure rate for things built in NY has taught the team not to build stuff here. Build for (and with) users!

Related posts:

Invitation: FAILFaire – Fail to Scale

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