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

Strategic Philanthropy | Civil Society | Apr 13, 2018

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

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s opening keynote delivered at the Impact Failure Conclave 2018.

When we think about failure, the way it’s received by samaaj (society), bazaar (markets), and sarkaar (state) are quite different. In the social sector, we have realised how important it is to recognize, talk about, share, and act upon failure and what we have learnt from it. Since we claim to work in the space of equity, inclusion, and the betterment of society, it’s crucial for us to understand where we are going wrong and to make those corrections.

However, over the years, India has moved from a culture of Swayam Sevaks or volunteers that Mahatma Gandhi and so many others inculcated in us, to a more professional social sector that depends more on donor money than input from citizens. In this new, competitive space, it’s difficult for civil society organisations to show donors their failures. Rare is the donor who agrees to fund an organisation further, after finding out about their failure. The direction the social sector has moved in the last three decades has made it more difficult for organisations to publicly talk about failure, but this is exactly what we must do.

Risk-Taking in the Bazaar, Sarkaar, and Samaaj

If we look at the bazaar, especially in the world of start-ups, failure is glorified rather than hidden away. There’s a ‘do-fail-do’ kind of mantra that people follow, claiming they are not failing fast, but failing forward. But from what I’ve observed in the social impact sector, this model does not leave enough time for introspection between those cycles. Perhaps not enough is understood about what failed. Before we can understand whether it was the idea, or the institutional arrangement, the market linkages, or something else that failed, the next cycle is ready to start. 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 only look at that first bottom line, is that the many other failures outside the activity of the bazaar remain hidden, and the cost can be externalized very badly to society. This is something that never gets discussed with regards to this cycle of investment and risk taking. It leads me to what Sir Nicholas Stern said, that “Climate change is the result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

In the sarkaar sector, there is almost no room for open debate on failure, instead failures have to be hidden or glossed over. Failed schemes and projects are replaced by shiny, new schemes and projects. When those also fail, the blame game begins. It is rare to find politicians and bureaucrats sitting together, hammering out exactly what failed and why. This is because in the government sector, personal positive action is so risky that people prefer to fail in smaller ways, than to be bold and take a bigger risk that might fail enormously or succeed tremendously. So they’re caught in this kind of conundrum, and when failure finally is recognized, it is recognized too late. It is recognized by auditory agencies much later, by which time the damage is already done.

Learning From My Failures

In all three sectors, failure can take different forms and be dealt with differently. But it’s important for us to talk about failure, because it means we can face it and try to overcome it, as a collective whole. Once we go beyond the fear of failure, so many possibilities open up. As with everybody else, failure has been my friend, my shame, my shadow, my guide, and my teacher.

I joined the Akshara Foundation in 2000, and chaired it until 2007. Akshara was set up with a vision of ensuring that “Every child is schooled in Bangalore by 2003” and although we’ve done a lot of work over the years, we have not yet achieved that goal. In retrospect, we were too ambitious, and we went too fast, too soon. We opened up activities simultaneously in 300 slums. We set up close to a 1000 small Balwadis, and we just could not manage the quality issue that arose from that. So we had to pull back and restart. When we did, we had learnt to take things much slower, and break our goal up into achievable milestones.

When I co-founded Pratham Books in 2004, we made the same sort of mistakes. We were innovating our hybrid model, and punching way above our weight. We were a small children’s publisher with a very big goal of delivering a book in every child’s hand. The organisation was wearing too many hats – we functioned as start-up, a platform, a market player, an NGO, and we were in a big hurry. We had realised that distribution was our biggest problem. In India, children simply don’t have access to books. Only the government had figured out how to put a book in every home, and that was a school text book. But for children to have access books outside of the school curriculum remains a difficult project. We tried different ways to overcome the hurdle of distribution. We even thought of sending books with SELCO’s agents into the field. When the solar panels were set-up, children were chasing the agents for books.

But this was under-capitalized, and opportunistic rather than strategic. We had to learn to let go of our control, and with the help of key team members like Gautam John and others, we set-up a completely open creative common platform for children’s writing. This meant that anybody could write, read, print, download, share, and even sell our books. We were able to open this platform up to millions of children. Pratham Books taught me about spending time on careful thought and design, when we’re trying to achieve larger societal goals.

As a donor agency, we have the ability to afford to take a lot more risks, so in the 13 years I spent working on the water crisis, I’ve experienced all manner of failures. Early when I started working on this, the government had started a scheme called Suvarna Jala, which involved implementing rain water harvesting in all the schools of the state. We partnered with them, and when we looked into it, we found a lot of data about why the scheme is not working. When we realised that, we stopped the second instalment of the scheme and saved a lot of money in the process, but we still didn’t get safe drinking water to the children. So we learnt that when 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.
Another example is from EkStep, which Nandan and I are working on together. It’s an educational platform aimed at helping the 200 million children in this country who need access to better tools to learn. We wanted to put something in their own hands that would help them get there. We thought that personalised learning tools would help, but within one year we realised that was not the way to go and we returned to the basic lesson that we learnt at Pratham Books – let everybody do what they do best on a shared infrastructure.

The Ethics of Failure
I don’t want to glorify failure, because every failure we experienced did have a real social cost. But I think it’s important say, “Yes, we failed because we didn’t understand enough, wait long enough, think enough, or deploy the resources at the right time, in the right way.” Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon whose book, “Being Mortal” is on the New York Times bestseller list, had this famous checklist manifesto for improving processes in hospitals or medical centres. He tried a pilot in Karnataka, and they were able to achieve behavioural change, but were not able to move the needle on infant and maternal mortality. This world famous surgeon was the first one to acknowledge his failure, go back to the drawing board and figure out what is not working here. When people who are respected, speak up openly about failure and course-correcting, it’s both humbling and inspiring for the rest of us.

Gandhiji, who remains a beacon for so many of us, spoke about how often he failed in excruciating details sometimes. Gandhiji had actually 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 make his statement. He realised that he had this burden of debt to pay off as his family had spent a lot of money to send him to train in England. So he took the first opportunity he got, and set off to South Africa because he knew those debts had to be repaid. What a wonderful failure that was, which 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 impact. But he felt personally defeated and the last few months of his life.

Yet that sense of personal failure left a rich legacy of movements of non-violence all around the world. So perhaps sometimes we can misread the signs of failure. What appears as personal failures in this life can evolve into success over time and generations. So understanding and introspecting correctly on failure is very important. High risk taking is considered almost heroic, so failure should also be talked about without shame. What should concern us more is when organizations or individuals grow, and start hesitating to talk about and share their failures.

Our culture is one where people are expected to talk about their own achievements and glorify success. So when things go wrong, each person keeps their failure quiet, and thereby creates a huge organizational risk, because it’s only when you catch failure early that you can correct it. Therefore organizations must learn to build a culture of admitting failure, not just in the start-up phase, but as they begin to mature and grow.

Sometimes it is critical to learn from our failure, and figure out 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 double down on their actions, with the assumption that this time they will succeed. By doing that, we might even lose sight of our original goal, continuing to fail because we’re too scared to turn back and start again. We should remember that all failures are not equal. Some are very clearly a breach of ethics and they cannot be absorbed easily or glorified at all. A very recent example of this is Facebook and the congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg. We have to differentiate between failure from inabilities, and failure from an ethical framework gone wrong.

Risks and Rewards

What will come after failure? Resilience. I think resilience is a very key institutional metric that we should include in our self-assessment. Resilience needs a kind of leadership that allows people to take calculated risks and learn from what does not work, but also the leadership to convert failure into a springboard for setting more audacious goals.

Looking back at the 100 years of civil society institutions and leadership in India, we should be proud of the kind of risk-taking imagination at work, from the Independence Movement, and the Satyagraha Movement, to the Sampoorna Kranthi, and even the Green Revolution. The imagination of these civic movements was almost at population scale. It makes me wonder whether the last three decades has seen the imagination of Indian civil society shrink. As our population has grown, as our civil society institutions have much to do, it seems as if we are afraid to think about solutions at the scale of the problems. Perhaps that is what we are failing at, so we need to ask ourselves, why we are scared of scale. In the words of my mentor, Ralph Fernandez, “India is not a pyramid. It’s more like a broad diamond. And there are 300 million people at the bottom of that diamond. If we don’t think of things in those numbers, if we keep thinking on a small scale, in our little district, in our little block, in our little panchayat or city, how will those 300 million people get what they deserve?” It’s time to open ourselves up to the idea of scale.

Perhaps one of the reasons we have not been able to do this yet, is because the social sector has stayed away from the technology revolution. However, India’s young population is maturing in a digital age. This has many implications on the idea of citizenship, equality, and inclusion. The role of civil society in the digital age has assumed critical importance. So 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 like never before. It allows for platforms to find physically distant affinity groups, build trust networks, expand to new geographies, and monitor and evaluate through instant data tools. The digital world is now largely mediated by corporations and is increasingly under government survey since there are many potential dangers as well. Which is more reason for checks and balances to come from civil society institutions.

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. In her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Carol Dweck talks about fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. Individuals 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. Others, 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. We may not be aware of our own mindset, but our mindset is discerned 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. On the other hand, 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 an important role in all aspects of individual and institutional life. At the heart of the growth mindset is a passion for 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 learning. I hope that we can inculcate a growth mindset for ourselves and for our organizations, because the kind of work India’s social sector does going forward will be critical to the future of this country.

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