Can we ever hope to apply what we have learned from failure when we are constantly moving forward into new and unfamiliar territory? Is this even a worthwhile exercise in the highly unpredictable context of social entrepreneurship?
In 2015, the Business Development Services Africa (BDSA) team in Ghana took a step back from our agribusiness consulting venture for an unforgiving self-appraisal. We had been effective as a business, but had not come close to creating the large-scale social impact we knew was possible. We carefully broke down our failures in communication, monitoring and evaluation, and effective strategy, and dedicated ourselves to the task of learning from our mistakes with a clear-eyed resolve to do better. Yet, despite our best intentions, we struggled and faltered repeatedly trying to convert our hard-earned experience into practical strategy.
Studying past failures, though informative, proved less valuable to our venture because we were not in the position to repeat the same mistakes. We needed a more nuanced way of looking at failures that did not simply try to extrapolate future results from the well-understood events of the past. Digging below the surface, we realized that many of our prior failures had their roots in the dozens of hidden assumptions that are constantly being made in the realization of a new idea. For example, our failure to scale our work was based on the tacit assumption that businesses would pay only for long-term, one-on-one consulting engagements. In reality, our clients were eager to try alternative project delivery methods that allowed for both flexibility and scalability. Uncovering this assumption opened up far more options for redesigning our consulting interventions than had previously been considered. Fundamentally, our error had not been this particular lack of insight into our clients’ needs, but a failure to document and question the foundational assumptions underpinning our whole business model.
Learning from failure in a highly unpredictable environment is not about creating checklists of things to avoid, but about building a taxonomy of failure modes and mechanisms that can be used to effectively root out and test hidden assumptions. Moving forward with our venture’s realignment, we will be continuing to reflect on our mistakes, but our focus will be on the “how” of the failure rather than the “what.” Mapping failures back to their root assumptions and developing a common language to share and communicate these mechanisms with other ventures and organizations can help us take the conversation on failure to the next level.