Learning from failure

I was investigating TED Talks on learning and managed to come across David Damberg’s TedxYYC  talk (see above).   Like so many of the less publicised  Tedx talks this was really something of a find.

Here was a young engineer who had been working with Development projects in Malawi, Africa. In the talk he shows a photograph of a young boy drinking fresh water from a tap. He states that the picture was a lie and later tells us exactly why this was the case.

It appears that the project was to use gravity to transport water from higher ground and then save it in tanks in the village where it could be used as a steady supply of fresh drinking water. The only problem was that there was no regular maintenance of  the pipelines and they ceased to function efficiently. Subsequently the village did not have their wonderful fresh water and were as badly off as before.

The reason for the failure of this project was because the “unsexy” part of development is not the brilliant pipelines and the tanks it is making sure that there was maintenance of the pipelines! This was not done in this case and the result was failure.

Failure in itself is not the end of the world, the problem is, as David Damberg states, do we learn from the mistakes? Do we admit that we have done them? Do we communicate with each other about our mistakes so that others can learn from them?

Damberg and others decided that they needed a forum to discuss their mistakes, to admit that they had done them and to allow themselves and others to benefit from the lessons learned from these mistakes. Accordingly they set up a website called “Admitting Failure” . This website is a brave attempt to tackle the questions  posed by failure. There are case studies from people who have attempted great projects and failed to see them work. The whole subject of how we can learn from failure is addressed.

Reading through the site and many of the stories I was wondering why other areas do not admit to their mistakes and realise that we can learn from them. When was the last time that a Government, any Government, stated that they had made a mistake in any of their policies?  Have any of the Bankers ever admitted that they made mistakes? What lessons can we learn from it all?

Failure is not a disaster… it is feedback from learning. It allows us to make progress… just look at the repeated mistakes made by             great scientists and inventors like Thomas Edison. There should be no fear of failure if it is looked at as part of learning.. but it is only effective feedback if we actually learn from it.