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Learning from failure

15 December 2014

Help us to improve the way NGOs and donors learn from failure

Talking openly about failure can be difficult

Back in July we created a blog post about financial sustainability, with a focus on learning from failure as well as success. This theme was echoed at the recent annual Bond conference, where we heard influential figures in international development like Jay Naidoo reflect on the role of failure and learning from mistakes in order to increase our effectiveness.

The theme of learning from failure is a hot topic in many fields at present.  Dr Atul Gawande’s 2014 BBC Reith lectures examine the nature of progress and failure in medicine, a field defined by what he calls 'the messy intersection of science and human fallibility'.  He argues that much of failure in medicine is now due to ineptitude (failure to use existing knowledge), rather than the main cause for many centuries: ignorance (lack of knowledge).  He also stresses that there will always be natural fallibility, because life is so complex that it will be impossible to eliminate all failure.  He has introduced innovation by improving systems, through such simple tools as pre-surgery checklists, which have already saved thousands of lives in a few years and are now being shared globally by the NGO he has founded called Lifebox.

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