01 September 2011 ~ 3 Comments

Admitting Failures

I wrote a piece for the PEPY Newsletter this month about a failure we had at one of our programs at PEPY and I thought I would share it here as well. I just realized that we should also post it on the Admitting Failures website – a site I have tweeted about before and really appreciate. One of my cohort through the Skoll program at Oxford is David Damberger who helped create the site through Engineers Without Borders (and here is a TEDx talk he did on the subject of failure). I’m excited to have a chance to study with others who believe that admitting failures and lessons learned is a way to improve our global impact!


Failing: A story of forgetting our own lessons at PEPY

Sometimes, even when we know the right thing to do, we fail to do it. We do this with seatbelts, diets, speeding, and love, and as it turns out, we sometimes do this with PEPY programs too.

Recently one of our programs faced a failure which should have been avoidable but which will hopefully help us set better systems in place to avoid similar problems in the future.

You might have read about our “Saw Aw Saw” program, the arm of PEPY which partners with communities to help them create and implement plans to improve their government primary schools.

To build more long-term sustainability into the program (click here to learn how we define “sustainability” at PEPY), SAS includes a small business development component. The idea is that if schools are able to generate additional income on their own, they can use this income to further develop their school beyond what the government or other fundraising efforts provide.

Last year one of the SAS partner schools decided to start a small mushroom growing business. It did quite well, as there was no other local supplier of these nutritious mushrooms, and their first rounds of sales went very well. Eventually, it became too difficult to source mushroom spores and the program stopped.

This year, two schools decided to start a spore-growing program, as spores typically generate a high net profit and in this way they could support local families in improving their nutrient intake by affordably growing their own mushrooms at home. This sounded like a great plan!

BUT we rushed into this program to try to get it started before the end of the school year. We didn’t do enough research, or support the communities with the tools and networks to do this themselves and we also didn’t have the in-house technical expertise to understand the threats to this agriculture program.

Part of the SAS model provides support for the one-off training costs which go into business development. We sent representatives from both schools to a course on mushroom growing. In addition to poor research, we made another big mistake, which goes against the lessons we have learned:

WE paid for this in full. The school support committees did not have to invest funding into this project, only their time. As such, if there was a financial waste, they had very little incentive to point it out or prevent it.

We didn’t send any PEPY staff to the training, which would have helped us to understand the program into the future and might have also prevented us from wasting funds on unnecessary equipment. You see, the key to growing spores, it turns out, is a sterile working environment. We had researched this enough to know the very basics, but when signing community members up for the course, we failed to research what technical tools, apart from the training component, would be required for the success of the program. When the community came to us with a proposal to go to a nearby training on spore growing, we accepted the proposal without doing enough research on how the training would work.

It turns out that part of the training included how to use one of the key tools in spore growing. This sterilization device is, you guessed it, electricity-powered. We had sent two people who live in remote communities with no electricity to a training about how to use an electronic instrument, just because they had asked.

Big oversight.

One of the more important lessons which was reinforced through this process was that when we asked the community members to return these products, they didn’t want to and instead wanted to try to just “put the machines on coals”. Clearly, apart from being dangerous, this would have been a waste of money and a valuable tool. Why didn’t they want to return it? In large part, because they didn’t pay for it. We did. If they had been making decisions with their own funding, it is much more likely that the decisions would have been pushed by impact rather than interest.

Rather than grow spores, the plan now will likely be to search for more affordable and reliable sources of spores so the School Support Committees can go back to growing mushrooms to support their education programs. In the meantime, we’ll be sure to improve our systems of research and decision-making so that this type of problem can be better avoided in the future.

  • Clive @CliveSir

    One of millions of things to chalk down to experience. I would be interested to hear what belts and braces you have put in place to avoid hasty human decisions in the future.

    I think the mistake would be compounded if the enterprise of the two individuals wasn’t recognised and if they weren’t encouraged to explore possible low-tech sterilisation alternatives – of which there must be many. Learning to use the machine was probably only part of the course; preparing the soil medium would surely be similar whatever the sterilisation method. I wonder if the investment in the course could still have a happy outcome.  

    It’s only a failure if you fail to learn. Mistakes inform. You’ve been informed and you’ve learnt – that’s success in my book! :)


  • Brent_fullerton

    Your reflection is genuine. My hope as an educator is that we can have the courage to admit our mistakes and failures more, especially with our students. We are not perfect, and shouldn’t pretend to be. Wouldn’t it be powerful, if the educational institution created a Admitting Failure website? Not to rant on problems, but to discuss solutions to improving the systems. 

    I have written a post recently on my blog about you and the subject of ‘schools don’t teach, people do’ This is my attempt to promote your message to a larger audience of educators. Recently, I took my kids back to Cambodia and we went motorcycle riding around the rural villages, seeing the realness of life there. My favorite moment was taking them to climb at the crag I help develop in Kampong Cham. When we lived there, my children were both too young to remember. While climbing, one of the local boys who used to hang around and watch, came over to us, so I invited him to climb. He did with ease of course. My wish is to teach local Khymer to be climbing guides for expats. Similar to what’s happening in Krabi.All the best as you continue to learn and grow at Oxford!Brent FullertonAdventure Recreation Club

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Brent.  What is the link to your blog?  I’d love to read it!  I agree with you on the market opportunity for climbing in Cambodia and I do indeed hope that when that gets targeted, local Khmer guides can benefit (rather than a situation like in Mui Ne where foreigners make the profits and the “board boys” are the only locals).  A lot of your friends who were climbing (especially the Japanese crew) are still taking people out and there are a few local guides coming out of that I think. (I know Josh up at CMRCA is interested in this as well…. let’s make it happen!)

    One of the founders of the Admitting Failures site is part of the program I am on at Oxford, which is fabulous. It would be phenomenal is the “admitting failure” mentality was incorporated into our education system. Instead, at least in America, I feel like we are taught to “fake it until we make it” – the complete opposite. I’m glad that students out there have teacher like you, Brent!