Mainstreaming complexity and failure

I don’t mean to come off as curmudgeonly. I don’t have enough facial hair to qualify as a curmudgeon anyway. But the potential for “failure” and “complexity” to become meaningless buzzwords in the aid and development field worries me. We do this to all the good concepts… participation… community engagement… ownership… capacity strengthening… learning… sustainability… innovation… gender equity. Sometimes there’s a price to pay for hitting the mainstream and you lose core meanings.

Admitting failure (the act itself as well as the new Engineers without Borders website) is good and necessary. So is more discussion about why aid and development are complex (and why many things in life are complex… Ethnografix talks about complexity and the recent killings in Arizona). It is a very good thing that these 2 concepts are discussed outside small circles and brought more broadly into aid and development (and other) discourses as they have been more and more over the past few years.

For one thing* complexity needs to be discussed because aid and development are complex, and it’s about time that aid and development practitioners stopped feeling crazy for noticing that. Ben Ramalingam talks about aid and complexity much better than I ever could on his blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos. It’s pretty engrossing. (There’s also a quote there by Stephen Hawking: “I think the next century will be the century of complexity” that proves I’m already way, way behind in declaring 2011 the year of complexity and failure-speak.)

For another thing*, failure needs to be allowed so that aid and development organizations can better learn from fails and share them openly. Ian Thorpe explains this well in his post Failure without Borders and links to some other recent “fail” celebrations such as Mobile Active’s FailFairePeace Dividend Trust’s failure report, and Engineers without Borders who followed suit. The Admitting Failure initiative and website, as explained by Good Intents, is a step forward for smarter  and better aid.


J. over at Tales from the Hood agrees with this admitting failure and talking about complexity stuff. He probably wasn’t aiming at jumping on the bandwagon, but ended up there anyway:

“It is time to start meaningfully coming clean. We’d better get busy and educate the public about the realities of aid work now, while they still sort of think well of us (and by the way, I use the term “aid” very generically in this case – development, long-term poverty-reduction, community development, international development, disaster response… all included). We need to come to terms with the honesty/transparency issue. We’d better provide alternatives to the glossy, over-produced, happy propaganda that has characterized our communications for the past decades.”

Terence at Waylaid Dialectic both agrees and disagrees with J. and also talks (inadvertently?) about failure and complexity:

[Yes J…. but it will be difficult… but] “here’s how I imagine it might play out:

“Amongst NGOs you need one NGO to take the leap. To publicly state that: ‘we’re going to keep working as usual on the ground, but we’re going to be honest with you about what succeeds and what doesn’t. To market its openness. I think for some NGOs this might work. Particularly those that already have a niche amongst the somewhat well-informed. And if it worked for one, it might take off amongst others. Might, might, might. Might fail miserably but, on the other hand, might become an established norm in the world of aid.

“It would be harder still for government aid agencies. Politicians are supremely sensitive to negative headlines. And opposition parties ever keen to generate them. And there are the Moyos and Easterlies of the world: people with ideological axes to grind. And who are likely to spin stories of failure to meet their own political narratives. None of this is likely to improve aid giving.

“Which is a long way of saying I agree with J. on the need for a new type of transparency in the world of aid. And for the end of the good news machines. This is change we should strive for. But, just like everything else in development work, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s going to be easy.”

So basically admitting failure might fail miserably… man, this stuff is complex.


But the stream has been kind of naturally flowing in the same direction over the past few years, seemingly without any centralized effort (correct me if I’m wrong). The discourse is moving towards admitting that aid and development are complex and that failure happens.

So, that’s all good. There’s this very cool talk that came out a couple days ago by Dave Snowden (HT @meowtree). In the talk, Snowden goes much further into detail about the link between complexity and failure. So I’m listening, and I realize wait, this is all kind of about the difference between systems engineering and complex adaptive systems and woahhhh.  I knew it was linked to natural systems and biology, but OK, no wonder this stuff is being discussed at an Engineers without Borders conference. It’s starting to come together in my head that failure is actually an integral part of this whole complexity and systems thinking thing. Doh. The century of complexity is here, and I’m actually pretty late to the party, and goddamn do I still have a lot to learn about it in order to understand it better and think things through.

But I still have this nagging thought about the buzzwordliness of “failure” and “complexity”. I’m still wondering if now that the failure and complexity voices are sounding louder and louder, the concepts and terms will become just empty buzzwords. Will “complexity” be simplified for the masses and will the depth in complexity theories be totally lost? Will “complexity” be over simplified and disjointed by being broken down into its minimal parts? (I mean seriously, complexity theory is complex, and has probably already been significantly dumbed down for people like me to understand it.)

@dymaxion sees me tweeting about this and steps in:


Fair play. And even more interesting (by now I want to quit my job and go study complexity full time….)

So there is a growing and focused effort on translating complexity and failure into a language that facilitates their discussion, and smart people like Ella (@dymaxion) are doing it. That is quite helpful.


But I still have some concerns….

  • Will we start to hear people blaming their aid failures on complexity? “Well it’s a complex field so inevitably we fail left and right and that’s a good thing….” Will that be acceptable or not? And will the push to move beyond failure be strong enough? (Snowden makes the point that the job of an engineer is to make a complex system into a complicated system so that it can then be engineered/figured out/resolved…at least I think that’s what he said.)
  • And what about all the failures that INGOs do admit? What about all the things written up in internal reports. All the “good practices” and “best practices” and “lessons learned” documents that fill the shelves and hard drives of the world’s INGOs and have often even been funded by forward-thinking foundations who understand that failure happens? Ansel (@mediahacker) a young journalist in Haiti, writes this after reading a recent report on Haiti “For me, something that stands out is the number of times the UN indicates an understanding of humanitarian failures but seemingly ignores suggestions from others on how to do better….” I’d edit that phrase to include “ignores suggestions from its own staff involved in implementing programs on how to do better.”  Failure means nothing if it’s not learned from and if political will is not there to change the conditions that cause known failures.
  • If failure becomes big enough of a concept and donors start demanding to know about failures, how many senior management discussions will there be about “which is the best failure to highlight for the donor?” “Which community can we visit to see a good failure?” “Which failure examples make us look the best? “Let’s pick a failure that it’s easy to fix so we will look good.” “Be sure to add the ‘failure’ sub-heading to the annual report structure and the logfail chart.”
  • How long till the “failure experts,” (as Ben Ramalingam (@aidontheedge) said today) descend upon us…. the consultants and contractors who soon, instead of only “delivering development” and “capacity building” will become specialists in “reframing failure”. Maybe AED can be their first client?

There’s where I feel curmudgeonly and cynical. I hope I’m wrong. I’ll let you know how I feel after participating in my first obligatory capacity building workshop on mainstreaming complexity and failure.

(And if you’ve made it this far in my wandering diatribe, please understand that this topic is complex, so I don’t pretend to completely understand it, and it was thus impossible to make this post any shorter or less rambling.)

*I realize that there is not only one reason that these points should be discussed — the reasons why they should be discussed are complex….


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

19 responses to “Mainstreaming complexity and failure

  • Joe Turner

    I wonder if anyone would agree on what actually designates a failure. Seems to me one could easily spend a lot of time and resources just debating that,

    • Shotgun Shack

      Agreed. I suppose defining what “good failure” is might be necessary. Generally when I conceptualize “failure” as normally “done” at INGOs I have something in mind that involves an evaluation or a report. When I listen to some of the complexity theory people talking about “failure” it sounds like they mean something a bit different.

  • c-sez

    I’d suggest that aid agencies struggle with:

    * recognizing failures internally when they occur – let alone announcing them to donors, the sector, the public
    * holding staff accountable for their under/performance
    * dealing with internal failures of policy, approach, management or basic staff farkup in an (internally) transparent way
    * not making the exact same mistake again 18 months later in a different country

    Until these fundamental fixes are in place, all the adhoc ‘failfaire’ guff is just more bullshit PR.

    • Shotgun Shack

      Yes and yes and yes and yes. I’ve been really frustrated sooooo many times at this. I’ve even been in situations where as I’m doing something, I know full well that the conditions for success are not there. There are not enough resources. There is not enough time. That element that the donor is insisting on is not the right one for the local situation. Or whatever other failure elements we repeat over and over and over and that never get resolved at the broader level. (see my post Spitting into the wind). Yet as a program manager I am obliged by the complex set up of my organization and its funding streams and all its external and internal stakeholders to try to make it happen the best I can within the constraints.

      And not only in INGOs. People from the private sector and new people coming into aid repeat failures that INGOs made a long time ago, because everyone thinks they can do something better/different, and needs to fail on their own to learn. It seems it is not enough to read about someone else’s failures. We have to live them in flesh and blood to be convinced.

      And again, maybe the type of failure I’m describing is not what is meant by “failure” within complexity theories….

  • Pineappleskip

    Rather doubtful about the ‘failure’ terminology. Tends to suggest a black-white view of outcomes, reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s characterisation of the world as good guys and bad guys.

    Just thinking of an annual review we helped a functionally challenged organisation with, suggested ‘lessons learned’ as a discussion point for its managers and that didn’t seem out of place. What would have done was typecasting everything as success or failure.

    • Shotgun Shack

      Yeah, there was an effort awhile back to call things “lessons learned” to help people overcome the concept of “failing” and put a positive spin on it, to see it as learning, not failing, and to put the emphasis on the improvement part so we wouldn’t get stuck on the “failure” part.

  • Tanya Cothran

    Thanks for putting so much thought into this discussion! I appreciate your concerns about “failure” going mainstream. Still, I’m going to blog about one of our grant failures soon, so I’ll see what kind of feedback we get.

    Planet Money did a great report on their failure to help a school in Haiti

    • Shotgun Shack

      Looking forward to that Tanya.

      • Tanya Cothran

        Failure really is complex! I’m struggling with how to talk about our own failures/challenges as an organization rather than a failure of the grassroots organization we supported with a grant (their failure to complete the building project). Was it our failure to not discourage them from a project that was too big, or our failure to know more about the prices of lumber and inflation in Zambia? We give the groups autonomy to choose projects – and because they choose we take a risk with each project, and I’m not sure that’s a failure.

  • J.

    I’m inclined to agree with C-sez. I’d also expand, perhaps partially also in response to the Media Hacker to say:

    1) Not admitting failure externally – like, so that every newbie journalist can run with the info – does not mean necessarily that failure hasn’t been admitted internally or that learning hasn’t occurred. The converse is also true: Public admission of failure doesn’t equal organizational learning or change, necessarily.

    External admission of failure (or not) is about public relations, managing donor expectations, etc. Not at all the same thing learning the lessons learned.

    2) I confess that I get a little bit bored with the “the NGOs never listen to new suggestions” complaint. For one thing, it’s simply untrue. For another, with very few exceptions, in my experience the people making this complaint don’t know their aid history enough to realize that their suggestions in fact are NOT new – in many cases these suggestions are for things that were tried and found to be ineffective years ago. And in such cases, whether the external suggestor wants to acknowlege it or not, NGOs not acting on these suggestions is, actually, organizational learning in practice.

    3) It’s got to be said: the complexity was always there. It was just rarely talked about outside of the circles of actual aid workers. The idea that this was ever simple was never more than a fiction created and enabled by media and NGO fundraising types.

    • Shotgun Shack

      “External admission of failure (or not) is about public relations, managing donor expectations, etc. Not at all the same thing learning the lessons learned.”
      Agree – there is certainly a difference. I suppose the idea is that if you fail publicly and then repeat the failure, maybe there is more pressure on you to learn the lessons and not repeat it? Just a thought.

      Point 2 – good point.
      Point 3 – very true.

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