Impact and Failures | Opening Keynote at Impact Failure Conclave, 2018

April 13, 2018 | Others

Rohini’s opening keynote delivered at the Impact Failure Conclave 2018


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Thank you so much to Harish, to SELCO Foundation, to Rachitha and Pooja who have tremendous energy and urja so they’re rightly placed in SELCO. And thanks to all of you for this opportunity. I’m actually going to speak for a full 20 minutes. And I have a written speech because I think it’s a very important thing that we are all going to be doing here today, over the next two days. So, it’s great to see so many people here and I’m sure the remaining seats will get filled over the next two days because I know the kind of enthusiasm there was for registering for this conference.

I was thinking about failure as so many aspects but if I were to look at the failing that I’ve been trying to do over the last few years of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkaar, it occurred to me that in these three sectors, “Samaaj” which is society, “Bazaar” which is markets and “Sarkaar” which is the state, that failure is looked at quite differently. So, for example, most of us, many of us are in the social sector and I think we all know how important it is to recognize failure, to talk about failure, to share failure and then to act upon failure. Because we claim to be in the space of equity, inclusion, bettering the world, it is never more important than to see where we are going wrong and to make those correction.

Yet, I would say, in the last few decades that I’ve been involved in this sector, that perhaps something that Harish alluded to also is that, because from being largely a country of really Swayam Sevaks or volunteers, the kind that Gandhiji tried to create and so many others in this country, we have moved into a more professionalized social sector and that depends much more on donor money than pure citizen energy and that has become a very competitive space. So, like Harish was saying, we can’t afford to show donors and I’ve had many so I know how that feels, we can’t afford to show donors our failures. Rare is the donor who says, “Let me fund you after I find out how much you have failed”, right? So, it becomes very difficult.

And so, this whole very necessary and rich conversion about failure, I think has got driven inside organizations. It’s not that inside organizations we don’t reflect but to be able to come out and publicly talk about failure has become much more difficult in the social sector, in the Samaaj sector, because of what is happening between donors and donees, grantees and grantors and how the way the sector has moved over the last two, three decades. And I think we need to take cognizance of that over the next few days and therefore avail of this opportunity even more. When it comes to the bazaar, I think, especially in the world of startups, we see, and this happens mostly in the West, a kind of glorification of failure.

So, there’s a do-fail-do sort of mantra and there seems to be a lot of money chasing people who fail fast, who they say fail forward. Now while that is wonderful, especially for people who fail fast and fail forward. I think perhaps on what I’ve observed in the social impact sector and the impact investing sector needs to take cognizance of this too, that perhaps there’s not enough time for introspection between those cycles. Perhaps not enough is understood about what failed. What exactly failed? Did the idea fail, did the people fail? Did the institutional arrangement fail? Did the market linkages fail? What is it that failed? And the next cycle is already ready to start and, of course, as we know, when it comes to the bazaar, there’s far too much emphasis on one form of failure and one measure of success, which is purely monetary.

What happens when you look only at that first bottom line is, as we all know, that the many other failures outside of the activity of the bazaar remain hidden and the cost can be externalized very badly to society. And that is something that never gets discussed too in this whole cycle of investment and risk taking. Which finally leads to what Sir Nicholas Stern said quite perspicaciously “The climate change is the result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.” In the Sarkaar sector I think we can all agree that 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, sometimes blame games can begin. It is very rare to find politicians and bureaucrats sitting together, hammering out exactly what failed and why, what can be change inside and out? And because in the government sector, especially in the bureaucracy, personal positive action, personal risk taking is so risky that if people prefer to fail in small things than to be bold and take risk that we might fail but might succeed tremendously.

So, they’re caught in this kind of conundrum. And often in the government, when failure is recognized, it is recognized too late. It is recognized by auditory agencies, by the CBC, by the CAG or somebody else, much later, by which time the damage is already done. So again, in these three sectors as you can see, there are very many different aspects to failure but because we belong most of us, to the social sector, I think we today have a very precious opportunity for 48 hours to… It is a safe space, it is a shared space, it is a space we can reflect, we can maybe confess and we can learn. And I think that speaking about failure gives people a lot of courage because the fact that we can face it, the fact that we have tried to overcome it, the fact that we can share it means that perhaps we can leave some of our unknown fears behind.

And once you go beyond that fear of failure I think it opens you up to so many possibilities. As with everybody else, failure has been my friend, my shame, my shadow, my guide, my teacher whatever. And depending on which state of acceptance or denial I have been in about failure, right? So, I won’t bore you with my personal life, thank heavens! But there have been many rich opportunities to learn from my own failures at various levels. I’ve learned to be grateful, to value family and friends. I’ve learned the hard way that tilting at windmills may not be the best way to bring about the change in my life that I seek. And as one grows, one tries at least not to repeat old mistakes and make new ones and though one is always bound to fail at every stage of life, but like my little grandson Dhanush, who’s one year old, we all learn to get up and walk again, when we are running too fast the center of gravity to help us stabilise ourselves.

So, let me share just a very few instances of what institutionally recognised as failure in my professional front. Let me go quickly to Akshara Foundation which I joined in 2000 and then chaired it till 2007. Ashok Kamath is the current chairman of Akshara Foundation is going to be coming. I don’t want to steal his thunder and in-fact he stabilized the institution considerably but what happened was we said that if this… Akshara was setup with a vision “Every child is schooled in Bangalore by 2003” and of course it’s 2018, I’m learning well by the way, every time in school, I’m learning well by 2003. Of course, much has happened in all these years but we haven’t achieved that goal. I think one of things we did was we were too ambitious, too fast and we went too fast too soon. We opened up activities at the same time in 300 slums. We setup close to a 1000 small Balwadis and we just could not manage the quality issue that arose from that and we had to pull back and restart it. We had to learn to take things much slower to understand as the more audacious goal we had set was to be the load stuff.

We had to break it up into achievable milestones. Then I moved to Pratham Books, co-founder in 2004. The same thing, we were innovating our hybrid model, we were punching way above our weight, we were small children’s publisher with a very big vision of book in every child’s hand. We were a startup, we were a platform, we were a market player, we were a NGO, everything and we were in a big hurry. We had figured out that distribution was our biggest problem. In India, children simply don’t get good books to read. Only the government has figured out how to put one book in every home and that’s the text book but otherwise for children to get joyful books to read, remains a very, very hard proposition, and we realised that distribution was the big hurdle and we tried all manner of innovation in distribution channels. We even sent books with SELCO’s agents into the field and when the solar panels were opened up, all these books came tumbling out and the children used to chase the agents.

But it was under-capitalized, it was only opportunistic, not strategic and we were way out of our depth. Because only when we learned to let go of control… And thanks to Gautam John and others, we setup a completely open creative common platform for children’s writing, so that anybody could write, anybody could read, anybody could print, anyone could download, share and even sell our books that we were able to open it up before I retired from Pratham Books, to millions and millions of children and that work continues in an even better form in terms of story we work. So Pratham Books taught me a very big lesson from all the small failures that we did was, to achieve large societal goals you have to spend a lot of time and thought on designing open collaborative platforms.

We started again work on water in 2005 and in past 13 years we’ve experienced all manner of failures and we keep on failing because we have as a donor agency the ability to keep on taking risks, so we can afford to take risk. I’ll mention only one failure which taught us something pretty early in the game. The government had a scheme called Suvarna Jala, very nice idea of a scheme. You put rain water harvesting in all the schools of the state. We partnered with them and our adviser Vishwanath is here and may be at some stage he can talk more about all our failures in the panel he’s going to be on, but we went in there and we had some very good idea, so thanks also to Vishwanath and we found a lot of data about why the scheme is not working because, I won’t go into details, you can imagine why? What we were able to do is actually stop the second installment of the scheme and therefore save the [11:39] ____ a lot of money but we still didn’t get rain water to children, we didn’t get safe drinking water to the children and we stopped something, but we couldn’t continue something good and it taught us that when you’re working with the government, you must try to get in as early as possible, at the design stage itself. We went in to do too little, too late.

I’ll start with the example that, there’s another quick one of the EkStep which Nandan and I are working together for the first time in educational platform, and we wanted to see whether we can… There are 200 million children in this country that need to be better at learning basics. We wanted to put something in their own hands that would help them to get there. We thought personalised learning tools would help and within one year we realised that was not the way to go and we returned to the basic lessons of Pratham Books, to be a open… Let everybody do what they do best on a shared infrastructure. So, I’ll end with my examples there and I hope I haven’t glorified the failure because every failure we had, did have a real true social cost and I don’t want to hide from that and we had to get up and we had to try again to walk again but it’s important say that “Yes, we failed because we didn’t understand enough, we didn’t wait enough, we didn’t maybe think enough and we didn’t deploy the resources at the right time, in the right way.

But it’s important to own up to failures, and I hope we get on through a bit of that, over the next two days. The superstar surgeon, Dr. Atul Gawande, I’m sure many of you have read his book, “Being Mortal” is perpetuated on the New York Times best seller list. He brought really conversations about dignified buying to the dinner tables in the homes in America who had always really not talked about this very important subject. He has this famous checklist manifesto by which he’s able to show that if people follow a certain checklist, they can really improve processes in the hospital or in the working… Anywhere where medical processes have to be deployed. He tried in our state, here in Karnataka to a pilot, in Belgaum district. And they were able to achieve significant behavioral change. But they were not able to move the needle on infant mortality or in fact even on maternal mortality.

The point is, Dr. Atul Gawande, such a famous surgeon of the world whom so many people look up to, very quickly acknowledged this failure, and has gone back to say… “We will go back to the drawing board. Something is not working here, that’s working in neighboring countries. What should we look at next?” I think when people who are respected, speak up openly on time and say they will course-correct, it is both humbling and inspiring for the rest of us. I think Gandhiji remains a beacon for so many of us, also failed often and told us how often he failed in excruciating details sometimes. He also saw a great resilience for all of his life and of course that’s what a conference like this is about. Harish it’s okay, if you fail to keep awake.

He was at a school foundation in London receiving an award yesterday, maybe you can take one second, I know I’m diffracting, just to celebrate our Harish.

Okay now you can sleep, I have 10 minutes more to speak.

So back to Gandhiji. My friend Rajani, she was a Gandhi Scholar, reminded me that Gandhiji failed as a lawyer when his brother sent him to Mumbai to practice. Apparently in his very first case, he couldn’t even open his mouth to utter his statements and he had to really face himself. And then he realized… He had this big burden of debt, his family had spent a lot of money to send him to train in England and he had… He was very conscious of paying back his debts and so, he took the first opportunity and in a very difficult time, he bundled himself and his family off to South Africa because he knew those debts had to be repaid and imagine what a wonderful failure that was. One failure that launched an adventure that encompassed all of humanity. He also felt very strongly towards the end of his life that he had failed to convince people about non-violence. He strongly believed that the philosophy was right and non-violence was the most important tool for social and other impact. But he felt personally defeated and the last few months of his life he was really torn internally and of course, he was killed by a matter of extremely cowardly violence itself.

Yet, think of it, that failure, that sense of personal failure left a rich legacy of movements of non-violence all around the world. And so I want to say that sometimes we can misread the signs of failure. That what appears like personal failure in this life can evolve into success over time and generations. So understanding and introspective correctly on failure is very important and the Wright Brothers are often mentioned in this regard, so I want to repeat that example. What I’m trying to say is, on the stage of failure matters a lot as Harish was saying in the early start-up phase, it seems to be quite okay to fail, it can be almost a badge of honor. High risk taking is considered almost heroic and failure can be talked about without shame. What should concern us more is that when organizations or individuals grow, they hesitate to talk about and share failures. And to grow older and wiser, you’re supposed to succeed more.

A culture is often developed where people are supposed to just talk about their own successes and glorify success. So, when things go wrong, each person or each unit keeps failure quiet, and thereby creates a huge organizational risk, because when you catch failure early, you can do some correction. So organizations have to learn to build a culture from the get go of admitting failure, not just in the start-up phase, but as we begin to mature. It is also important to reflect who failed? Was it personal failure? Was it the idea failure? What failed and why? Otherwise it turns into a blame game and it serves nobody and no institution.

I was thinking on this a lot for the last few days since Harish and all of you came to ask me to talk about this. It seems to me that sometimes it is critical to learn from our failure, whether it’s best to abandon a particular course of action. Otherwise there is a danger of what is known as an escalation of commitment. People get doubled down on some actions, thinking that this time when I do it, probably in almost the same way, I’m definitely going to succeed. And I’ve… Because they’ve… And even sometimes lose sight of the original objective that they started on, and they keep going on a pathway, keep on failing, because you’re too scared to turn back from that pathway. At that point I wonder if failure does not become a moral question.

We should remember that all failures are not equal. Some are very clearly a breach of ethics and they cannot be absorbed so easily or glorified at all. Think of Satyam, think of the congressional hearings going on right now with Mark Zuckerberg. Think of Facebook, just to give you a very recent example. So we must differentiate between failure from trying and just inabilities and failure from a ethical framework gone wrong. What will come after failure? I think resilience, resilience is a very key institutional metric that we should put into our self-assessment and that resilience needs leadership and examples I think. Leadership to allow people to take calculated risks and learn from what does not work, but also leadership to convert failure, perhaps into a springboard for setting more audacious goals.

I’m here at only about two more points to make, I’m going to elaborate on them. I want to use this opportunity to talk about something I’ve been feeling about the social sector for a long time. Looking back 100 years of the civil society institutions and leadership in India, I would say that we can be proud that there was a massive imagination at work, whether it came to the Independence Movement, the Satyagraha Movement of course, the Bhoodan movement, if you think of the Sampoorna Kranthi, even if you think about the Green Revolution, the imagination of these civic movements was almost at population scale. I am wondering whether in the last three decades the civil society in India has actually shrunk, whether its imagination has actually shrunk? That instead of… As our population has grown, as our civil society institutions have much to do, has our imagination shrunk? Have we retreated into comfort zones? Are we afraid to think about solutions at the scale of the problem? Is that what we are failing at? It seems to me and I know so many civil society institutions, I had been so privileged to meet all these so that extreme high integrity and commitment, passion, leadership, resources, what have you. But I do feel this very much and when donors and all say that, I tend to come and on this side and say. “No, no there’s not one definition of scale blah blah blah.”

But now sitting here with us confessing, sharing, reflecting, I feel perhaps there’s an opportunity to ask this question over the next few days, “Why are we scared of scale? Is it because it’s difficult, complex, we can’t imagine the path ways, because we have told ourselves that small is beautiful and… Is that why?” because today when you look at it as my mentor Ralph Fernandez says, “India is not a pyramid. It’s more like a broad diamond. And there are 300 million people at the bottom of that diamond and if we don’t think of in those numbers, if we only all of us keep thinking in small, in our little district, in our little block, in our little panchayat or city, how will those 300 million people get what they deserve? I think it’s time to open ourselves at least to the idea of scale and what to scale is a separate question, we can say we together want to scale problem solving not one solution, not a cookie cutter solution. But I think the time has come to ask, “Has civil society in India reduced it’s imagination and has it failed to scale to the size of the problem?”

I think one reason for this, as I have been observing over the last three years and of course living with Nandan and all the technology people in his circuit, I’ve also tried to learn and absorb a lot. I feel one of the reasons we’re not able to scale easily and there is notable exceptions in this room and some of them are going to speak to you about this, is that the social sector has also stayed somewhat aloof from the technology revolution, sometimes rejecting it totally. Many of us… Some of us are a bit older now, including the speaker here, perhaps we fail to see that India’s young population is maturing in a digital age. This has terrible many, many implications for the idea of citizenship, of equality, of inclusion, which are things that we care about and therefore there are both opportunities and risks. The goal of civil society and this is very important to understand, the role of civil society in the digital age has assumed critical importance. I urge you to look at the work of Lucy [23:22] ____ and I can write it down for them to share it with you all later, we can send some papers out.

My question is when and how will India’s striving civil society respond to the challenges of the digital age? There are many opportunities to achieve the societal missions that drives CSOs. The digital world allows civil society institutions to scale as never before because discoverability of talents and less practices, finding physically distant affinity groups, building trust networks, expanding to new geographies, monitoring and evaluation through instant data tools. These are all potential value add score to wonderful work that is happening through people in organisations like here in this room. If we embrace the digital age we all know there are threats, there are huge threats to the digital age. The digital world is now largely mediated by corporations and is increasingly under government survey and since there are many dangers, which to me reinforces my point even more. Checks and balances against the amplification of the bad need to come from civil society institutions. But if the civil society institutions are not playing in that space, they are not going to be able to provide those cheques and balances effectively.

Into the public and leadership and its voluntary institution that must hold states and markets accountable to the larger good. Civil society in India must not fail to use this opportunity to carry its influence into the technological realm. This inability to see this large trend and the desire to live in our own ideological comfort zones, would actually be the biggest risk to civil society in India if we could face up to our failure to see it. By and large I feel that we have been risk lovers and that must change.

Recent research, and this is my last point. 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 own personality. Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” which she really wrote about students and how students perform in the classroom, but is applicable to many parts of society. It’s created a bit of a buzz and it’s not the only… It’s not the only one, it’s just a instance that I’m using. She talks of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets and I am just right now using wikipedia to help me articulate this. Individual she says can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where their ability comes from. Some believe that their success is based on the innate inability. They are said to have a fixed theory of intelligence or of a fixed mindset. Other’s who believe their success is based on hard-work, learning, failing and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence which is known as the growth mindset. And we may not be aware of our own mindset, but our mindset is discerned on based on how we behave and this is especially evident in our 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 realise that their performance can be improved and learning can come from failure. These two mindsets play a really important role in all aspects of individual and institutional life. And what is on the heart of a growth mindset is that it creates a passion of learning, rather than a hunger for approval. It’s hallmarked as a conviction that human qualities like intelligence, creativity, relational capacities like love and friendship can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. People with this mindset are not discouraged by failure but they see themselves as leaning. I sincerely hope that I and all of us in this room can move on the pathway to a growth mindset for us personally and for our organizations because what we all together do is really critical for the future of this country and so, thank you very much for this opportunity to talk to you. I’m also going to bore you on the next panel, but I hope that if I have failed to convince you on anything that you’ll see there’s an opportunity for my learning. Namaste.

Impact and Failures | Opening Keynote at Impact Failure Conclave, 2018

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