29 May 2011

Fail often to succeed sooner: Can this idea truly work in development?

boite a suggestions
I have not known where to begin writing about this trip to Rwanda. Suffice it to say that in a short amount of time I have learned much more about collaboration in a cross-cultural/multidisciplinary context than I could have imagined.

To bring you up to speed: My current role is to develop packaging and communication tools to support the implementation of a micronutrient that is often referred to as Sprinkles:

Sprinkles are an innovation in home fortification, addressing vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This unique delivery system provides micronutrients to vulnerable populations by enabling families to fortify many different semi-solid foods in the home.

Sprinkles are sachets (like small packets of sugar) containing a blend of micronutrients in powder form, which are easily sprinkled onto foods prepared in the home. Any homemade food can be instantly fortified by adding Sprinkles. Coating of the iron prevents changes to the taste, color or texture of the food to which Sprinkles are added.

As a designer, this opportunity is interesting in and of itself as I begin developing tools and messages to support the adoption of a new behavior based on community research. Add to this a diverse group of people who have various interests and required protocols and this project just got amplified. During this short trip, I’ve been introduced to the partners (of which there are 4 NGOs, 2 universities and the Ministry of Health) and listened in on meetings about budgets, methodologies, and requirements. I’ve looked at a range of visuals that are either in use or in development (and vary from organization to organization).

In the next week, I will be briefing a photographer about a photo shoot, seeking to acquire proper translations for technical data, obtaining all current visual tools (and prospective ones as well) to prepare for future messages and tools and ideally getting a package design created so as to get approval from the partners and ultimately signoff by the MoH. In the midst of this, I am contacting micronutrient distributors to ensure the best price and ease of supply to the country.

While this list of to-dos might sound like a normal day in the life of a designer, it has subtle nuances that are not typical in my North American experience. Notably, the idea of iterating on ideas to come up with a final solution isn’t necessarily the modus operandi in the context of development. Budgets are on the line, donors want proof and you don't want to mess around with things like someone's state of health. This caution begs a question for me:

Can design process (which often includes the acceptance of “failure”) truly be permitted in a development project? If so, what does it actually look like when collaborating with other disciplines?

If you’ve been in this domain, you know what I’m talking about. There are enough projects out there that had the best of intentions and yet were not able to be sustained or implemented for of a variety of reasons. Engineers Without Borders are already reacting to the typical need for a success story by reframing the way of talking about development: Let’s just admit our failure.

But what if the entire process permitted failure more fluidly in order to ensure deeper understandings, new insights or alternate solutions? How would you introduce this idea to key partners within the country so that it became an asset rather than a potential liability? Is there a better word to make the idea more palatable from the beginning?

I’m still wrestling with this idea so this post is merely a starting point. If you are reading this with any level of interest I would welcome your comments or thoughts on the topic. I’m sure there are others who have more experience and insight.


Anonymous said...

Nice post.

I think you raise a problem we all struggle with, at least one I struggle with quite often, which is that very few organizations want to risk failing, or worse yet, talk about their failures so others can learn from them.

The culture in the business is Fail Fast:

And having worked at companies that tried huge top down approaches as well as ones doing much smaller iterative development I can't help but think any organization that thinks it can launch at scale instantly is just deluding themselves.

Or worse yet, deluding their donors.

Because I think that is the real perversion that is so difficult to escape from, that the customer, in the sense of the person paying for any project, is not the people in need, but rather the donors. And it is far easier to tell your donors you launched a program this quarter that touches thousands than say you iterated on a program and touched a few hundred. It is simply impossible for the donors to know what is truly effective, and it is equally difficult for the organizations to compete for funding while also being truthful of their failures.

It is a tough problem, frustratingly so, because I think all involved of course want the best outcomes, and even want to try different approaches but we are all trapped in a machine whose mechanisms we can't control.

olivelife said...

I appreciate your comment as the topic relates to business culture. I also value the acknowledgement that there is more than one customer who has a vested interest in the project. While obvious, it can be an interesting experience to navigate in this context and with the "machine" you mention.

Perhaps I'm naive but I hope for a day when the machine doesn't get so bogged down and has a means to accept shifts more easily.

Sidebar: I just had a conversation with someone who said that a better word might be "Pivot." It suggests we knew there was a problem and shifted direction (instead of outright failure). I'll test it out to see if it fits in this context.

Bonnie Koenig said...

Kara - excellent questions. As the EWB's Admit Failure project has demonstrated, it's hard for most organizations to admit failure, and so as you point out, it can be even harder when numerous partners are involved. I think you have made a key point about what 'if the entire process permitted failure'. Much of admitting failure is about expectations and consequences. If the expectations fro the beginning were that some failure that didn't have negative health consequences) were permitted and indeed encouraged, you would have a different learning environment.