Some presentations have a lot more at stake than a bit of personal or corporate PR for the speaker. Sometimes exposure of problems outweigh publicity exposure. The risks of law suits, cut-off funding and embarrassment can overwhelm even the most lesson-packed failures.

A culture of embracing failure starts by nurturing the conversation about it in the first place. As Sam Lowenberg describes in his New York Times piece “Learning From Failure” (thanks Mom)…

  • “Beyond simply doing good, there’s an impetus to show success: nongovernmental organizations, contractors and researchers want a good track record, funding officials must show they are spending wisely, and journal editors want to highlight breakthroughs. But ‘success stories’ are rarely the whole story. Global health and development projects frequently go off course, and it’s not unusual for them to fail outright. What is unusual is for researchers to openly discuss their failures. That’s a shame, because it’s a basic principle of science that you get things right by analyzing what went wrong. So it was a pleasant surprise when, last summer, researchers at Mumbai’s City Initiative for Newborn Health published, in the journal PLoS Medicine, the disappointing results of their three-year effort to implement a community-based maternal- and infant-health initiative in the city’s slums.”

Lowenberg refers to David Damberger’s TEDxYYC talk ‘Learning from Failure’

  • “When you look at the system, you can start to see some of the challenges. A development sector that focuses more on pleasing the donors and making them happy and communicating to them as opposed to understanding the needs of the beneficiaries. And because of that systematic challenge, it is very slow to innovate, there is very little change, and you get exactly the same project built ten years later that fails in exactly the same way…Engineers Without Borders have this culture of embracing failure openly and letting us talk about it. And it was only through a bunch of us talking about failure that we really got to see that we were really making a lot of mistakes. And we were making the same mistakes. And we could actually learn from these mistakes. We started to innovate and we started to change…For the past three years, Engineers Without Borders has published an annual ‘Failure Report’ citing our biggest failures. At first people asked, ‘how do your donors think?’ How would they feel if the money that they had spent and generously donated had had no impact? That’s tough [to take]. And our donors felt that too. But once they started reading the failures, they understood the power of those lessons learnt. They realised that it is an injustice not to be sharing these.”

Damberger practiced what he preached by not just talking, but building. Building a website where people from all over, not just EWB, could share their failure – “Admitting Failure.” You will find there a well of deep insights that slake the thirst of the most creative innovator.


  Engineers Without Borders Failure Report