On Learning from Failure

by | Nov 1, 2016 | Blog, Our Investments

It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure” – Bill Gates, 1995

The greatest opportunity for learning comes from the instances where things do not go as planned. Our unsuccessful attempt to use crowdsourcing as a means of identifying and mapping community-based ECD services is a case in point.

In partnership with Code for South Africa (Code4SA), Innovation Edge worked to find a method of locating ECD centres that are not currently known to the Department of Social Development (the Department responsible for registering, supporting and monitoring ECD), with the ultimate aim of keeping children safe and improving the quality of service provision.

Many ECD centres, particularly in impoverished communities, are indistinguishable from the shacks or homesteads around them and are therefore difficult to identify and access by anyone not familiar with the community. Previous attempts to locate such centres focused on physically travelling to communities and speaking with community members in person – a time consuming, expensive and difficult process in hard-to-reach areas of South Africa.

The approach we tested with Code4SA was one of crowdsourcing, a trending technique for gathering information.

Crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call”. -Mokter Hossain, 2015

Crowdsourcing is about accessing the wisdom of the crowd.

Our assumption was that if community members understood the importance of registering the ECD centre located in their community, they would be interested in finding out whether or not the centre was indeed registered. A communication strategy was designed based on an appeal to individuals to find out if their child’s ECD centre was registered.

The idea was that caregivers would see the benefit of registration with DSD and heed the call to action.

This call to action came in the form of a poster campaign. Posters were put up in community halls, clinics, grant service points etc. Each poster contained a keyword that would link to the poster’s location in order to geolocate the centre. An online SMS platform, Groundsource, was utilised to receive, manage and reply to messages. Information received on ECD centres through crowdsourcing was checked against a database of registered services in that area – the individual who submitted the information was then notified as to whether or not the centre was registered. Information on unregistered centres was shared with the Department to enable them to follow up and support registration.

Disappointingly, the number of messages received over the six-month period was negligible.

The key lesson is that we failed to engage adequately with our ‘customer’ at the outset. Discussions with community members at the sites at which the posters were located highlighted concerns about having their cell phone numbers shared with an unknown entity, potentially causing problems for ECD centres in their communities and use of data. The ‘legitimacy’ of the posters were also called into question because they did not include the Department’s logo and because they had not been accompanied by a broader communication campaign, using community radio for example.

A note on Failing Forward:

In The Economist article, ‘Learning from failure’, authors point out that a stigmatising attitude towards error dominates our lives. This leads us to cover up mistakes in order to avoid blame or fault. We hope to create an innovation environment at Innovation Edge that doesn’t adopt this kind of view. Our project management strategy now is about lean iteration and failing fast.

We believe, in line with The Economist, that identifying points of failure and making small changes leads to disproportionate gains. As Ron Burr, in his article ‘Failure Is Not the End. It’s an Opportunity to Learn’ says, “Strive to find flaws in your ideas or processes and eliminate them. You are only doomed to repeatedly fail if you choose not to learn from your past mistakes.”

Similarly, economics writer, Tim Harford, in his Ted Talk, ‘Trial, error and the God complex’, identifies the essential role of trial and error. For him, trial and error results in better solutions because you know what does not work, which can shape your solutions forward. Also, not all problems have the ‘right’ solutions. Therefore, trial and error is needed to come up with the best solution given the context. Ultimately, success comes from trial and error.

At Innovation Edge, working with bold ideas, navigating the terrain from ideation to proof of concept, we are bound to encounter failures. What we strive to do, however, is encourage fast failure and to support a shift in the thinking of our project partners in how they think about failure. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed 1,000 times, I have successfully found 1,000 ways that will not make a light bulb.”

Lyndsey Petro, Project Coordinator, Innovation Edge