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Make it okay to fail, and maybe development will fail forward

Blog post #2 from the Open Africa Summit, Zanzibar

Until today, I had never met Rakesh Rajani, the great man who leads Twaweza. I knew of him by reputation and we came close to meeting on a number of occasions but today, we met at the Summit. As first impressions go, the man hit jackpot with me today.

He was the first to make a presentation at the summit and it was a most refreshing one. He chose to present a set of steps that could, well, should be the standard in the design of development projects – one that the private sector has generally used to great advantage. He presented the idea of the Human Centred Design – essentially that development projects may not succeed as well as they could unless they did a couple of important things, which I will list later in this blog post.

But the reason that Rakesh was such a hit with me today (apart from the excellent presentation) was because he started by telling us two stories of how Twaweza failed (or in one case barely succeeded). The first was Huduma, an excellent initiative, a well designed app but that had not been used by much more than 500 people, despite over US$ 1 Million in investment (!).  The second was a project called Daraja, which failed because, while it was an excellent project, the citizen did not believe that it would result in any changes if they used it. You may read more about these projects in the Twaweza annual report, where again, the organization is refreshingly honest in announcing its successes and failures from the first paragraph.

In the course of my life, I have always been much more interested in failures and how people have overcome them – partly because I am very aware of my excellent propensity to fail. I think it is far more interesting a story to listen to people who have faced failures and overcome them to succeed, that it is to hear a chronicle of excellent successes.

Rakesh’s point, which I hereby appropriate as my own, is that for success to be achieved – especially in the Open Data space, where most of the activities are experiments that no one can guarantee their developmental success – the documentation of failed and not-so-successful projects is as crucial as noting the successful ones.

However, it must be noted that in general, the ecosystem of funding and project support is not friendly to failures. Its very nature creates huge incentives to sweep the failures under the carpet or to redress them as “learnings” which for all intents and purposes suggest success.

My suggestion, building on Rakesh’s argument is this. Why don’t we foster an environment that is okay with mistakes and that moves the trial (there can be no mistake without trial) forward and onward to the next mistake ensuring that there are real learnings? This would mean changing the criteria of success. It would also mean Defining failure at the onset.

Maybe in our space, we could encourage for Open Data projects to (in the silicon valley adage) fail fast, fail often and fail forward.

Back to Rakesh: The list that he shared today was as follows (I paraphrase and he will correct me I hope if I get it wrong):

  1. Focus on people (their values, habits, perceptions, goals, quirks)
  2. Let the project enhance existing human natural abilities
  3.  Take a Risk and allow for a more liberal margin of error
  4. Keep a keen eye on out comes


See Blog post #1 from Open Africa Summit, Zanzibar: “interests of gov’t same as interests of the people?”

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