The dearth of failure stories

As we work with numerous partners and collaborators across sectors, we often see the celebration of efforts and success stories - by governments, by civil society orgs, by researchers and by funders. While the celebration of the huge efforts is important, an acknowledgement of what’s not working is critical as well. Indeed, the net sum of all the declared successes should have translated to a very different landscape across the country already and this is clearly not the reality.

What we do not see enough of are stories and analyses of things that are not working, and an introspection wrt the same. There obviously are huge gaps - both systemically/programatically and certainly geographically. For instance, the focus on super sharp levels of attribution often inhibits possible wider impact through sharing and collaboration (and we’ve some great examples of the latter happening in pockets).

Failures are not end-states, and many current successes don’t sustain or travel across geography. How do we make it easier to talk about the gaps, the pending problems and the “failures”? How do we realize the need to do different things, or do things differently. How do we create space for an acknowledgement of hypotheses that might not pan out as imagined, for less the ideal and optimal outcomes and thus create the opportunity for course correction and for iterating through ideas and solutions faster, for collaborating for effectiveness and so on?

What are some good stories of things that did not work out that were acknowledged, and then even possibly led to better outcomes or at least better thinking?


This is crazy timing. I ended up at the same realization very recently thanks to the following journey:

  1. Wanted to actively start “something” toward climate action.
  2. Started talking to general public(Friends, family and strangers) and people working in the specialized areas(sustainability consultants, waste management consultants, industrialists and businessmen, scientists, Ph. D. grads, farmers ) to build “something”.
  3. Realized most people neither have the time, money or mental bandwidth(giving up their peace) to entertain a doomsday scenario of climate change - hence happy not taking active action, but are happy to pay for a viable solution.
  4. Had to go back to the drawing board to re-think my enthusiasm and calling towards climate action.
  5. Really felt the weight of “inventing the wheel” towards ecological balance. A huge mental drain and a couple of back and forths later, saw that this is a big piece in a big game of industrialization, consumerism and natural progress of uncontrolled and falsely fed human need V/S greed cycle.
  6. It was interesting to see how beliefs of faith and religions played into this, especially the angle of Karma - historical atrocities, current affairs and what not.
  7. Humbled by the weight of all this, currently working with a small team to create impact and awareness.

PS : Rant over, resource sharing starts now.

  1. The video that walked me through the history of climate change, action, proponents and opponents.

  2. The decline of vertical farming.

  3. Calling out the carbon offsets failure
    Revealed: more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest certifier are worthless, analysis shows | Carbon offsetting | The Guardian

  4. Climate activism and its current state

  5. Naming climate calamities after oil companies

These are just a few examples of actions and their failures around the world ( Failure here is the failure to create sustained impact, not the trigger for it.)

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Thanks for sharing that. I meant the sharing of failure more in terms of an introspection though, than what others have or have not done. We’ve come across a few very large orgs that do this well, but not always publicly. We’re also very aware of the magnitude of the problem and our complete inability to move any needle as a single org/effort. How do we do this as a wider, public discussion?

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The question we need to answer to reach a possible solution here is probably - “Why is it even needed and what do I have in it for me?”. Orgs and individuals nowadays have a tendency to productify their efforts even in dire situations, and that could be an entry point.

In short, the answer could be glorifying Orgs’ failure stories like how entrepreneurs of the 21st century glorify their failure stories. They have a lot to gain from this.

  1. Help orgs/systems come out and share their failure stories by highlighting the upsides - individual, social, monetary, regulatory and more. Could be podcasts, articles or a story telling team that would go to these orgs and cover their glorious failure stories.
  2. Create incentives for even the lowest effort orgs to share - creating a fool proof method of sharing efforts and receiving incentives.
  3. A focused community of "Try"ers for a sense of belonging, which I think this forum is already on its way to achieve.

These ideas might or might not scale due to many factors, but I think would be a good trigger for the cause to evolve into something more scalable.

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We could start with the grove with following
tags/flairs (in addition to categories) where they can be shared:

  1. Identified gaps
  2. Pending problems
  3. Failure corner

Where each member could have only one active post with a new separate section for conversation rooms/comment threads on each post. This would help keep important learnings in spotlight for the community here.

To do this at larger scale and make it an everyday activity for most people, their efforts and learnings must feel effortless to be shared with communities they are already part of and in ways they already interact. Learned knowledge from failures is passed down as wisdom - a social structure that works for all.

Climate positive, open social platforms could be the shared spaces where failures are inclusive by design (i.e. a social structure), and optimised for wisdom that helps people learn from failures too.

I hope this helps. :smiley:

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So, here’s my recent contribution to failure tales.

It’s been on my plate to see how the CSR space can contribute - through the intersections - more to the climate effort. Everyone’s involved in domains that impact climate one way or the other, so there’s always ways to tweak efforts and design that become energy, water, soil, emissions, the local economy, materials and waste etc in positive ways.

I’ve tried framing the problem in various ways, but failed to co-create with partners visible roadmaps and pathways that make it obvious how these intersections exist and play out, and what those tweaks could look like. Speaking about this at events and in meetings has not has the effect one wished it would.

Back to the drawing board and rethinking how to do this.

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Please share a brief context, would love to add it to my weekend sheet - anything to read to get the context? :slight_smile: