Monday, 12 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: What happens when an NGO admits failure

Failure is a common theme within Agile projects - we understand the value in failing fast and early. The most effective teams operate in an environment where failure is accepted. To do otherwise leads to undesirable behaviour, failures are hidden, learning opportunities are lost, people avoid responsibility, less work gets done. In today's TED talk David Damberger discusses the failure of aid organisations and in particular the Canadian Engineers without Borders programme, so I was keen to see how his organisation treats the subject.

I'm happy to say the answer is with maturity. EWB Canada now publish an annual report and have set up a website where other organisations can openly discuss failure. It wasn't always so. David explains that the driving force came from the engineers themselves, they had to push their management hard to make it happen.

Think about this for a second. 100% of the rain collection systems David put in place in India had failed after 1.5 years due to inadequate maintenance and availability of spare parts. Another gravity fed water system suffered over 50% failure for the same reason. When he spoke to other engineers they had similar stories. The Canadian EWB management team initially preferred to hide this information rather than publish it, even though this would lead to other engineering teams making the same mistakes, wasting both the engineer's generously donated time and supporter's generously donated funds. Worse that this it would have resulted in inadequate solutions for those they were claiming to help.

The issue of hiding or punishing failure is systemic in organisations today. It needs to stop. Congratulations to David for taking a stand.

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