FailFaireDC: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Failure

The World Bank has never heard so many “Wooos!”

At FailFaireDC last night, about 100 people, mostly from the international aid community, gathered to celebrate failure in its many forms. It was what a liberal arts college might call a “safe space,” where people who might normally be embarrassed by a project that bombed could have some beers, laugh, and learn from one another’s mistakes. Organizer Wayan Vota, a senior director at Inveneo, a company that brings technological solutions to remote areas in the developing world, explained, “The event showed that failure is no reason to be ashamed. Failure shows leadership and innovation in international development.” In other words, Vota wants to take the stigma out of failure. (Note: Though the event took place at the World Bank, it was sponsored by Inveneo.)

The 10 failures presented shared some common themes: poor understanding of a community’s needs, not grasping the technological skills or equipment available on the ground, and assuming that technology would be a magic bullet. Animals’ ability to disrupt the best-laid technological plans, like when killer bees built a nest in a junction box or lizards ate through circuitry, were also a theme.

One brave presenter, Brian Forde, talked about his scheme to bring cheap international phone calls to Nicaragua. Six years ago, he and his partners started out renting a wall of phones out of an ice cream shop. Then, in an attempt to bring phone service to rural areas, they came up with one of those ideas that seems utterly brilliant in its simplicity: They created a bike whose peddles would power the phones, then rode it to isolated towns. Within five hours of uploading video of the bike to YouTube, Forde said, he got a call from CNN.

The humble contraption was broadcast internationally, hailed as an innovative, cheap solution. But there was just one problem with Llamadas Pedaleadas (pedaled phone calls): Who wants to make a personal phone call with half the village listening in? “Our biggest perceived success was actually our biggest commercial failure,” Forde said to sympathetic, but enthusiastic, laughter. Forde and his partners dialed their ambitions down and instead focused back on the original ideas: phone booths. Beware the dangers of getting carried away.

Beware, too, the dangers of thinking that technology is always the solution. Alison Stone, another presenter, described a project called MoTeCH, or Mobile Technology for Community Health, that hoped to use mobile phones to create reminders for both health care providers and health care consumers in Ghana. But they overestimated the true penetration of mobile phones—a woman might say she has access to one, but it’s her uncle’s, and he has to ride his bike 10 kilometers to get it charged, so she can’t really use it all that often. The project became so confusing and convoluted that it ended up creating more work for the health care providers. The solution: Stone’s team scaled back their technological ambitions and created simplified record keeping systems. The health care providers were much happier with the paper system. From failure to success.

And that was the real point of the night: It wasn’t about celebrating failure just for the sake of failure, but about taking lessons from each mistake and using them to create more efficient, economical, and accessible projects that could have a greater effect on a community. Organizer Wayan Vota says that the idea is very Silicon Valley, where “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t done anything yet.” It also echoes Tim Harford’s brilliant Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, though most people I spoke to at FailFaireDC hadn’t read the book.

Over the summer, one observer, Jamer Hunt, took to FastCoDesign to ask whether the recent embrace of failure in venues like FailFaire might mirror “the rise in the rhetoric of failure dovetails in troubling ways with a shift toward esteem building in child raising and general education.” Hunt proposes that there are useful ways to discuss failure, and then there are not-so-useful ways that are more like “trophies for last place.” But I didn’t see any trophies for last place last night (though admittedly there was a sort of trophy for the most enthusiastic, honest speaker). Rather, I saw a celebration of taking stock and evaluating, of learning from one another’s mistakes so as not to waste precious resources. The presenters each emphasized what they learned from the failure and how they used those lessons. One speaker noted that her organization once purchased mobile phones that were incompatible with the software they had planned to use. This failure set back the entire project. Embarrassing, right? So the group didn’t tell anyone … and soon afterward, an affiliated team in another country made the exact same mistake. The lesson here, of course, was that one quiet failure can lead to many mistakes, but one loud failure can prevent others from flopping in the same way.

That’s what FailFaireDC was all about: taking the sting out of failure so that it becomes something we can learn from, not sweep under the rug out of embarrassment. This was the third FailFaire held in the U.S., with the first taking place in 2009. Originally, FailFaire was launched by a nonprofit organization called Mobile Active, which has essentially made the concept open-source, so that anyone can hold a similar event. Admittedly, a coming-out day for failure may work better in the international development community than in a cutthroat business world, where a mistake like buying the wrong kind of cell phone could mean losing a job. But in Adapt, Harford makes the case for other, subtler ways the for-profit world can embrace failure.

The patron saint of failure-as-a-virtue in the business world was also invoked last night at FailFaireDC: Steve Jobs. Vota noted last night that Jobs made most of his considerable fortune from Pixar, not Apple. My colleague Rachael Larimore has argued that Pixar was perhaps Jobs’ greatest creative success, too. Pixar, of course, arose from the ashes of Jobs’ famous flameout at Apple. If only we can all fail so well.