Projects that Last

Learning from Failure

David Bornstein in his Fixes blog post 21 August 2013 in The New York Times writes about Gary White's approach to the world's water crisis.  White studied water and sanitation projects in Latin America.  A focus on project failures led White to several insights.  Here's Bornstein's description of White's experience:

"Again and again, he came across the same scene: wells broken and abandoned. When he tested the functioning ones he found that, in many cases, the water was more contaminated than the river or pond water the villagers had been advised to avoid.

His and others’ research indicated that half of all water and sanitation projects in the developing world at the time were failures...

White saw patterns. For example, if a well is installed in a village but locals lacked a sense of pride or ownership for it, it would eventually break down and fall out of use. Similarly, if locals lacked the organizational skills, knowledge, or funds, to maintain the pump, or if there was no reliable supply chain for parts or tools, or if locals had insufficient appreciation for the importance of hygiene, water would stop flowing.

In 1990, he founded an organization, WaterPartners (which merged with H2O Africa in 2009 to become Water.org), to implement his ideas. He saw that villagers had to take charge of their own development, so his teams worked to help them organize water and sanitation committees; he saw that water and sanitation had to be addressed together; and he saw that sustainability had to be a primary consideration at the outset, not an add-on."

The story of water projects matches my experience with improvement projects in a range of settings.  Without local ownership, know-how, and resources to maintain the improvement, you can predict that the impact of an improvement project will be less than the investment--negative ROI.

White's belief that sustainability has to be thought through from the beginning of the project makes perfect sense to me.  We should ask at the start how a proposed improvement project will be woven into the fabric of the organization's daily work and who will do the weaving.

Every project ought to yield information about short-term and long-term performance.  Even if a project fails to achieve its goals, at the very least we ought to study reasons for failure.  Learning from failure is a great way to develop projects that work in the world as it actually is rather than the world we imagine.

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