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Transcript: David Damberger on Learning from Failure at TEDxYYC

Engineers Without Borders is drastically different now, ten years later than what we thought engineers should be doing in development. We don’t build water points anymore. As a matter of fact, we don’t build anything other than spreadsheets. We now have this innovative marketing campaign “Sponsor an African spreadsheet,” because we understand that the problems are not hardware problems, it’s all about that software side of things. It’s a really hard concept to get across to people, people still want to fund wells and schools, but it’s really about the software side of things, and it’s a lot longer process to fund those things; and it’s not sexy, but it works.

So the next thing that happened is our staff members were really excited about sharing this failure internally but we still were not doing a good job of letting other people know, and some of our very courageous field staff were getting upset at the management because other projects were going to make the same failures and they weren’t learning. So they pushed our management staff — and we were nervous about it — about publishing our failures, but for the last three years, Engineers Without Borders has published an annual failure report citing our biggest failures.

At first I am asked, “How did your donors think?” and I think how would my donors feel if they knew that the money they’ve spent and saved up, and generously donated, had had no impact? And you know, that’s tough. Our donors felt that too. But once they started reading the failures, they understood the power of those lessons learned and realized it’s an injustice not to be sharing these.

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Then we realized that not everyone reads reports so we built a website, admittingfailure.com. This is for all organizations to come, and start admitting their failures, and to start having a discussion about failure. The concept is catching on. The Harvard Business Review just last month published their first review focused on failure. Two big companies lately have also dealt with failure. I’m talking to my friends in other sectors and they tell me, oh, it’s not just the development sector that has these challenges, and we got across a lot of other sectors, and two companies had lot of big failures lately, and what’s interesting about them is that one of them publicly admitted their failure and talked about what they’ve learned from it, what they’re going to do next time. The other one tried not to talk about it at all. I think it will be interesting looking forward to see which of those strategies works.

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I’d like to ask people to, first of all, think about how does your organization think about and share failure. Maybe ask the person next to you because I think it can generate really interesting conversations.

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And lastly, I’d like to turn back to this question that was asked, “Has aid failed?” I think I’ll say that, for me, the answer is yes, but only because it hasn’t failed enough.

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Thank you.

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By Pangambam S

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