Admitting Failure

One of my oldest son’s favorite family games is “let’s talk about Mommy’s bad decisions.”

Yes, seriously.

It started from a comment I made once in disciplining him, about how bad choices have consequences, and even Mommy and Daddy have discovered that through our own mistakes.

As is perhaps to be expected, he really latched onto that concept (although, somehow, it’s the idea of Mommy’s bad decisions that have captured his imagination, much more than Daddy’s!), and so the aftermath of his own disciplinary consequences often includes a recitation of Mommy’s bad decisions.

Speeding tickets are some of his favorites; I think he likes the imagery of the flashing lights.

I thought of Sam, and how obvious it is that he’s learning from these mistakes (and how much he delights in knowing that he’s not alone in making them!) when I read about this relatively new website: Admitting Failure.

It was started to help those in the development community learn about each other’s failures, own and move on from their own, and create a climate in which failures are acknowledged as a path to greater innovation and excellence, with the understanding that people’s lives are literally at stake.

Here’s what they say about why the site is important:
“Competition for financial support in the aid sector has resulted in a ‘worst practice’ – secrecy. This site and those who support it are attempting to correct that error, and create a best practice of openness, transparency and honesty. We’re all in this together. We’re on the same side in the fight against poverty, inequality and unnecessary suffering in too many forms. Let’s admit our failures to find greater successes.”

You can submit your own failure to the site (failures are rated based on users’ perceptions of the honesty and insight shared by the fail-er), browse others’ failures, and discuss failure itself, and the role it plays in progress, with others engaged in similar work.

I think it’s pretty awesome, and I have so many ideas for how a similar culture of openness about failure could make a difference in the social service world, too, where we certainly fail, and where we certainly have a lot to learn from those failures.

We have a lot of collective knowledge, for example, about what hasn’t worked in preventing teenage pregnancies, or helping adolescents avoid drugs, or fighting poverty in single-mother households, or getting low-income neighborhoods mobilized for civic engagement. We just aren’t doing that much to share those failures, and to even sort of celebrate them–not in a “yay, we failed!” way, but in a “we can own this and become better for it” way.

The other day, my son got distracted while playing his computer game and ran out of time to help me with a cooking project he’d been looking forward to. He wailed, and then he said, “that’s kind of like when you overslept, Mommy, and you were late to work and got in trouble” (for the record, it was in 1994). I told him he was right, and I offered to set the kitchen timer the next time.

We fail.

And we learn.

And, if we’re lucky, others fail. And they share.

And then we learn, too.

2 responses to “Admitting Failure

  1. This is a great post! I have to agree that the need for admitting bad choices and learning and helping others to learn from our own bad choices is necessary. To bring it to the macro level is important to refrain from repeating bad programs and policy. To research and look at the history of a social problem and the policies and programs that worked and did not work is important to the future in solving the social problem.

    • Trisa, I had a conversation with a foundation program officer last week who had her own perspective on this–she said that she cringes when she sees a grantee say that what they learned from a given program was “to keep doing what we’re doing”–if we’re not always looking for how things can be better–in individual practice, in policy (or in our own driving!), we’ll keep making the same mistakes. On a systems level, that’s tragic.

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