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Fail Festival 2014: Failure Happens and Flowers Grow From It

By Guest Writer on December 15, 2014


At a typical development meeting, the person responsible for an epic fail would slip into a trapdoor and be consumed by sharks with freakin’ lasers. Yet at Fail Festival 2014, work-related failures from the spectacular to the personal, were proudly shared in laughter with more than 300 international development professionals.

The night started with balls – big beach balls – launched across the massive conference hall by Fail Festival organizer and ringmaster Wayan Vota, dressed in crushed red velvet.

“So I’ve been standing up here, four years now, talking about failure. When I first started, it was just about failure. We’re now going from just failure, to ‘Ah-Ha’: this is what works and this is what doesn’t, and finding guidelines for ICT4D success,” he said. “And I’m really excited about that, because we can move past just the concept of failure in ICT, and now actually talk about how do we improve development overall.”

With eleven presenters Fail Festival calls to mind a USO production with sharp-witted comedy and musical performances, mixed with the self-deprecating insightfulness of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential – a nimble mélange focused on learning from the tragedy of defeat!

With the aid of sci-fi cinema slides, Dr. Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan International USA, told the hilarious story of dealing with a customer relationship management system that was gloriously comparable to Appolo 13’s “Houston… we have a problem”. But the system’s “delayed revenue recognition problem” made her experience the terror of Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity.

“You shouldn’t have a disaster recovery plan that goes – AHHHH!” San Martin said, with much laughter from the audience. “That’s not good; the point is don’t panic. Have a Plan B. … There isn’t one monster, there isn’t one problem; there are many when things go haywire. It’s an accumulation of little things badly done across the board by everyone. So suck it up, face it, and start talking.”


Patrick Fine, CEO of FHI360, described his time as a USAID education officer in Swaziland, collaborating with the Ministry of Education. Despite a successful interactive radio program that taught English, which was loved by both students and teachers, Fine expressed how issues of cost and how the program consumed primetime hours for radio stations led to the pilot project ending.

“I though the role of the external educator, like I was coming into the country, was to bring new ideas and to promote innovation,” Fine said. “And the Ministry had the idea that really what we needed to be focused on was country ownership.”

When Fine asked FHI360 colleagues for examples of failures for the festival, he received similar tales of promising projects that collapsed due to external factors; yet, how there was always a silver lining despite the failure.

“It really was an example of how difficult it is to talk about failure, and that inspired a song.” Fine proceeded to play guitar and sing a comedic rendition of Failure Is Not an Option. Soon available for purchase on iTunes, I’m sure.

The TechChange Band, headed by President Nick Martin rocked a pretty entertaining fail song as well. Accompanied by two guitars, an oboe, drums, and a … drone, their lessons included not assuming locations have connectivity, the importance of meeting your neighbors prior to them beginning construction during live online trainings, and not flying a drone if you’ve had two drinks. Lesson noted.


Perhaps the most hilariously harrowing tale of failure was from Anahi Ayala Iacucci, Senior Innovation Advisor with Internews. A year ago, she was asked to conduct a citizen mapping report of election incidents in a “random country between communists and wherever,” according to Iacucci.

“We’ve seen it so many times, I could really do it in my sleep,” she said. However, upon arriving in the country, she learned there were more partners, data sources, and outputs than she anticipated. On top of that, during Election Day, none of the online mapping information was available – eight hours after the election had begun.

“And I’m like, ‘Okay you know what, it’s a hard country to work in. It’s taking some time.”

However a series of phone calls with the project donor, the grantee, the local office, and Iacucci (on her birthday!) demonstrated to her how much of a big deal this was. Especially since her field contacts, who were suppose to place the data in the platform, had a different definition of “real-time” than she did.

After 72 hours, the data was finally on the platform, which then allowed Iacucci to finally get some rest. But once again, the donor called the grantee, who called the local office, who then called Iacucci.

“What is this?”
“Is it a map?”
“Yeah it’s a freakin’ map!” Iacucci responds.
But the donor said, “I wanted a pie chart!”

The Fail Fest audience lost it at this point, with several seconds of laughter. Iacucci seemed to be a good sport about the incident, overall.

“Lesson 1: some projects can really throw your self-esteem,” she said. “Shit happens but flowers grow from it. …So we design everything starting from what people need.”

Members from the audience laughed upon hearing a common theme: design based on the specific needs of recipients.

“I know weird! So hopefully, next year for the next election in that random country between the communists and wherever, we’re probably gonna have a project slightly better than the previous one.”

Not all of the failures involved host-country ministries or anxious donors. Some failures were of a poignant nature: Vota wishing to spend more time with his “three key stakeholders”: his wife and children; or PSI Regional Director Marcie Cook’s description of her tear-induced fracturing due to work-related stress. Each example called forth a focus on what was truly important personally, at the end of the day.

“The mark of success is not that you never fail,” Vota said. “It’s that when you have the set backs, you get up and you go for it. And of course that’s why we’re all here.”

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Corey Quinlan Taylor is a communications consultant in international development.

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