Let Your Failures Teach You
"You can't let your failures define you. You have to let your failures teach you." ― Barack Obama
Two years after our last blog post on “Fail Again, Fail Better,” we’re publishing the current round of CARE’s Learning From Failure initiative. It’s a fascinating exercise to reflect on where we are, and how we’ve learned (or not) from our failures so far. We have not solved everything yet, but we do keep finding ways to let our failures teach us.
We’ve got evidence that we are getting better at addressing failures we prioritized in 2019 because of substantial investments in change. We are improving over the life of a project—final evaluations show fewer failures than mid-terms. We’re still grappling with how to best understand changing contexts, create sustainable change, and work with partners in a way that truly meets mutual goals and gets the right people at the table.
I often tell people that one of the strange things about my job is that listening to people tell their stories of failure is one of the best things I get to do. It sounds backwards, especially in a time when so many things are moving in the wrong direction in the world, with injustice, inequality, poverty, and hunger all on the rise. But I find that listening to people who are thoughtful about what’s not working and how to do better gives me so much hope. And anyone who is brave enough to publicly tell a story of what did not work is a person worth listening to.
In 2019 and 2020, CARE published Learning from Failures reports to better understand common problems that projects faced during implementation. Deliberately looking for themes in failure has helped CARE as an organization and provides insight on what is improving and what still needs troubleshooting.
I’m a little staggered that we are 4 years, 87 podcasts, and 3 meta-analyses into this journey. This would not have been possible without a dedicated team of champions, some incredibly brave leaders in dozens of countries around the world, and the feedback and interest from all of you. To every person who has shared their story on a podcast, asked a hard question, or decided to put resources into addressing the problems, thank you!
To everyone who has listened to the stories, read the reports, or asked us questions, thank you, too. Having an audience has helped us stay accountable and stay motivated to keep improving. If you have a story to share now, get in touch ([email protected])! We always want to learn from others.
"Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again." ― Nelson Mandela
So what have we learned in the most recent round of review? We are definitely still falling down. It’s no surprise that failures still show up in the evaluations we review. But I find it encouraging that they are different failures than we saw in 2019. In this review, our biggest failures were:
- Understanding context—both in the design phase of a project and refining the understanding of context and changing circumstances throughout the whole life of a project, rather than a concentrated analysis phase that is separate from project implementation. Focusing so heavily on context during project design often crowds out space for learning and adjusting over the life of the project.
- Sustainability—projects often faced challenges with sustainability, particularly in planning exit strategies. We use the word sustainability all the time, but we have a long way to go to consistently get it right. Importantly, one of the core issues with sustainability is involving the right partners at the right time. 47% of projects that struggled with sustainability also had failures in partnership.
- Partnerships—strengthening partnerships at all levels, from government stakeholders to community members and building appropriate feedback and consultation mechanisms, is the third most common weakness across projects.
Some areas also showed marked improvements after significant investments. Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning (MEAL), Gender, Human Resources, and Budget Management are all categories that show improvements over the three rounds of learning from failures analysis. This reflects CARE’s core investments in those areas over the last 4 years, partly based on the findings and recommendations from previous Learning From Failure reports. Specifically, this round of data demonstrates that the organization is addressing gender-related issues. Not only are there fewer failures related to gender overall, the difference between midterm and final evaluations in gender displays how effective these methods are in decreasing the incidence of “failures” related to engaging women and girls and looking at structural factors that limit participation in activities.
Another key finding from this year’s analysis is that projects are improving over time. For the first time, this analysis reviewed mid-term reports in an effort to understand failures early enough in the process to adjust projects. On average, mid-term evaluations reflect failures in 50% of possible categories, and final evaluations show failures in 38% of possible options. Partnerships (especially around engaging communities themselves), key inputs, scale planning and MEAL are all areas that show marked improvement over the life of the project.
What we are doing to respond
Some specific actions we are taking are:
- Partnerships –In January 2021, CARE published the Partnership in CARE Paper which provides detailed information on how the agency can transform the approach to be more adaptable, flexible, and inclusive. This includes a set of core partnership indicators launched in June of 2022. Moving forward, CARE continues to adapt projects to maximize the potential to impact the populations and understands that partnership is central to achieving these goals.
- Implementation – CARE is making additional investments in program quality measurement, which CARE has made clear in CARE’s Vision 2030 through significant improvements in advocacy, impact measurement, and knowledge management and learning. We have also launched a new Program Quality initiative to address common challenges we see.
- Scale –CARE’s updated Impact at Scale guidance can help projects all stakeholders and create systems-level impact to better influence change beyond the communities and provide greater sustainability, more impact, and better results for more people.