Rohini’s opening keynote delivered at the Impact Failure Conclave 2018
Thank you, Selco Foundation, Harish for inviting me here to speak to you all.
It is a very important subject that we will all be tackling together – the role of failure in delivering impact.
For the samaaj sector, which is what many of us are involved in, recognizing failure early, acknowledging one’s personal and institutional role in it, and then embarking on course correction is very critical. We are not all geared towards accepting failure, or thinking of failure. Especially in the past few decades, when civil society institutions are more dependent on donor communities, in an increasingly competitive space, the need to talk about successes, however small, has overtaken the need to reflect on failures. Or at least this time has got pushed inside the walls of the organization.
In the bazaar sector, especially in the world of start-ups, we have seen, mostly in the west – a sort of glorification of failure. Do fail do again, seems to be the mantra. There is a lot of money floating around chasing people who do that. And while that is great, it perhaps does not allow for enough time to discover what exactly failed – the idea, the people, the institutional arrangement, or something else. The next cycle starts before the introspection is complete. And of course, for the bazaar, there is too much emphasis on only one measure of success – monetary. That allows many other failures to be hidden, and the cost externalized to society. As Sir Nicholas Stern said, “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure that the world has seen.”
In the sarkaar sector, there is almost no room for open debate on failure. Failures are to be hidden, or glossed over. Failed schemes and projects are replaced by shinier new schemes and projects and when those too fail, the blame games can begin. It is rare to find bureaucrats and politicians sit together to hammer out what failed and why and what can be really changed, inside and out. Often, positive action is also personally risky, so people actually prefer to fail in something small or routine and keep it quiet than take a risk with a bold initiative and be seen to fail. And often, in the government, failure is recognized too late, by other agencies of government such as auditors or vigilance commissions, by which time the damage is done.
So failure has very different aspects when it comes to samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar.
Here, as mostly members of the social sector, it is a very precious opportunity we have here over the next two days. A safe space. A shared space. A space to reflect, to confess, to learn.
Speaking about failure gives people courage. The fact that you can express it, the fact that you can deal with it, might show that you have gone beyond the fear of the unknown. Going beyond this fear then opens you up to many possibilities.
In my life and career, failure has been my constant shadow, my guide, my shame, my friend and much more, depending on what stage of denial or acceptance I am at!
In my personal life, which I won’t bore you with, there have been rich opportunities to learn from my own failures at various levels. I have learnt to be grateful, to value family and friends, I have learnt that tilting at windmills may not be the best way to bring about the change in my life that I seek. One grows, one tries not to repeat old mistakes, though one is bound to fail in new ways at every stage of life. One learns to get up and walk again, like my little 1 year old grandson who runs too fast for his centre of gravity to stabilize in time.
I can share a few instances in my career too, where I had to deal with failure.
When I joined Akshara Foundation in 2000, for example, and then went on to Chair it until 2007. We were part of the Pratham network and our bold mission for “Every child in Bangalore in school and learning well by 2003!” Well, we did not help to achieve that audacious goal, because it is very hard and very complex to make such societal goals happen on time. Ashok Kamath who replaced me as Chairman and took Akshara very far, is here too and will speak tomorrow, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But some of this was before his time. I think went too fast, too soon. We opened up activities in 300 slums. We set up close to a thousand small balwadis. We just could not manage the quality issues that cropped up. We had to pull back and re-strategise. We had to learn to take things slower, to understand that while the bold, audacious goal we had set for the organization was to be our lodestar, we had to break it up into small achievable milestones.
Then came another organization I chaired for 10 years.
We co-founded Pratham Books in 2004. Over the ten years that I was there, we learnt many things about failure. We were innovating a hybrid model, we were punching way above our weight, a small children’s publisher with a big vision “A book in every child’s hand”. We were a start up. We were a platform. We were in a hurry. We had figured out that distribution was the BIG hurdle to access to books for children, even if we could produce them and make them affordable. So we tried all manner of innovation in distribution channels, including sending our books with Selco’s agents! But it was under-capitalised, it was opportunistic, not strategic – we were out of our depth. It was only when we let go of control, when we set up an open platform for our books – allowing anyone to read anywhere, print anywhere, and even sell anywhere, and we must thank Gautam John for helping us set up our Creative Commons Platform, that we were able to reach millions of children with books in their own languages. So Pratham Books taught me a very big lesson –to achieve large societal goals, to have to spend a lot of time and thought on designing for open collaboration.
We started Arghyam’s work in water in 2005, and in the past 13 years, again, we have often experienced failure in our desire to achieve safe, sustainable water for all. I will give only one example. We partnered with government on a scheme called Suvarnajala, to build rainwater harvesting structures in schools across the state. Our data showed that it was simply not working. We learnt that to showcase this failure to the government worked to stop the second phase of the scheme, thus saving the exchequer many crores. But it still did not get rainwater to schoolchildren. We learnt that partnering with government at the design stage itself would have led to a much better outcome for water security.
We did too little too late.
I’ll stop with my examples there.
It is important to own up to failures. The super star surgeon, Dr Atul Gawande, whose book Being Mortal is perpetually on the New York Times bestseller lists and who brought conversations about dignified dying to the dinner table in America, recently did just that. Through his Ariadne Labs, they tested the deployment of his famous checklist manifesto for safe childbirth in a pilot study here in Karnataka where teams using the checklist adhered to key lifesaving practices (such as washing hands, warming a newborn properly, or giving appropriate medication to stop bleeding) far more consistently. In spite of all the behaviour change they achieved in a remarkably short time, Dr Gawande was disappointed to realise that infant and mother mortality showed no significant improvement.
Now he is planning to delve deeper to understand what makes this so difficult to achieve in the Indian context when even neighboring countries have had better success.
This “back to the drawing board approach “of famous successful people is very important to learn from. Certainly, I felt very humbled and inspired listening to him talk so openly about the failure of his experiment, and his courage to go on and beyond that failure.
Gandhiji , who remains a beacon for many of us, also failed often. And he always shared everything that he discovered about himself. He also showed great resilience for most of his life. Rajni Bakshi, Gandhi scholar and my friend, reminded me that he went to South Africa because he failed to set up a successful career as a lawyer in Mumbai, where his brother had sent him to practice. In his first case, he had an attack of the nerves and could barely speak up. He had failed. He was very mindful that his family had taken considerable financial risk in sending him to England to become a lawyer. Debts had to be repaid. And when the opportunity came, he set sail for South Africa, hoping to find a way to repay his debts. One failure launched an adventure that encompassed all of humanity.
Yet, he also felt, towards the end of his life that he had failed to convince people about non-violence. While he strongly believe in the philosophy of non-violence as the most important tool for impact, he felt personally defeated, and of course was killed by an act of cowardly violence himself. Yet he left behind a rich legacy of movements of non-violent action. Sometimes, we can misread the signs of failure. What appears like personal failure in this life can evolve into success over time and generations
The stage of failure matters a lot.
In the early start up phase of an organization, failure can be almost a badge of honour, and high risk-taking is considered heroic. So failure is talked about without shame.
When organizations grow, they hesitate to share failures. By then, a culture has often developed where people are supposed to succeed in their tasks. So when things go wrong, each person or unit keeps it quiet thereby creating huge organizational risk. Organizations have to then learn to build the culture of admitting failure and acting upon it quickly. It is also important to reflect upon the failure to answer the questions – who failed, what failed and why. Otherwise, it can turn quickly into a blame game, which serves no one and no institution.
It’s also critical to learn from that failure as to whether it is best to abandon a particular course of action. Otherwise there is a danger of an escalation of commitment. People can double down on some action – thinking they will do it better next time. They can lose sight of the original objective and keep going on a pathway they are too scared to turn back from.
At that point, failure can go from being a failure to a moral question. We should remember that all failures are not equal. Some are clearly a breach of ethics. These cannot be absolved so easily, or glorified. Think of Satyam. Think of the Congressional hearings going on as we speak in the USA about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.
What comes after failure? Resilience is a key institutional metric. And that needs leadership too. Leadership to allow people to take calculated risk, and learn from what does not work. Leadership to make failure a springboard to set more audacious goals.
And I want to use this opportunity to talk about the social sector in particular. Looking back at the history of civil society institutions in the past 100 years in India, I would say the sector has shrunk in its ability to understand how to respond to problems at the scale of the problem. The independence movement spread across the nation, the green revolution covered swathes of the country, the bhoodan movement, the sampoorna kranti, one could go on. But in fact in the past 30 years, when we have seen a mushrooming of CSOs, we have seen a reduction in their ambition and their ability to think at population scale. We just fail to scale. Scale seems too frightening, too complex, and just too difficult. And so we sometimes rationalize it, we say ‘small is beautiful’ and so on. Yet we fail to tackle the scale issue by its horns.
One reason for this is because the social sector has stayed aloof from the technology revolution, sometimes even rejecting it totally.
Many of us fail to see that India’s young population will mature in a digital age. This has many implications for the idea of citizenship, for equity, for inclusion, that the social sector cares about. And therefore there are both opportunities and risks.
The role of civil society in this digital age therefore assumes great importance. When and how will India’s thriving civil society respond?
There are so many opportunities to achieve the societal missions that drive CSOs. The digital world allows civil society institutions to scale as never before. Discoverability of talent and best practices, finding physically distant affinity groups, building trust networks, expanding to new geographies, monitoring and evaluation through instant data loops – these are all potential value adds to any NGO that can build its own capacity to use digital tools.
Of course there are also threats. Because the digital world is largely mediated by large corporations and is increasingly under government surveillance, there are many dangers.
Which again reinforces the points that the checks and balances against the amplification of the bad need to come from civil society institutions. The state might not wish to yield power; the markets might not wish to yield profits to reduce the bad. It is the public and its leadership and its voluntary institutions that must hold the state and markets accountable to the larger good. Civil Society needs to understand how to thrive in the digital age and also respond to the digital age and its dangers.
This inability to see large trends and the desire to live in ideological comfort zones could actually be the biggest risk to civil society, if only we could face up to our failure to see it.
By and large, India’s society has been risk averse. That must change.
Recent research has shown that one of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, created a buzz about this a few years ago..
Ms Dweck talks of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.
(From Wikipedia) According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure. These two mindsets play an important role in all aspects of a person’s life. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. At the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but also they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.
I hope all of us in the social sector can develop this growth mindset for us personally, and for our organizations as well.
Thank you once again for this chance to address you all. I am sure the conference will be a success, in that we will celebrate our ability to speak up about our failures!