Do Our Projects Have Permission to Fail?

At a recent conference, Robert Jenkins, an assistant administrator at USAID, was quoted saying, “There are a few things maybe that we don’t do very well. One of them is admitting something isn’t working, and two, acting and moving at the speed of relevance.”  

Jenkins’ quote reminded me of a recent conversation I had with course participants at a recent PMD Pro workshop. They were talking about how valuable it was to have opportunities to practice with the project management tools.  One person, in particular, said he especially appreciated the workshop’s learning games, because they gave him ‘permission to fail’. 

Note – readers who have attended workshops I facilitate, know that I like using games in training. Participants make bridges out of straws, build spaghetti towers, make paper aeroplanes, design pyramids etc. Here are a couple of pictures from recent events. We have all kinds of fun playing games &, of course, they are all linked to different learning objectives.

learning games at a PMD Pro workshop

One of the reasons learning games are effective in training is because they provide an opportunity to experiment, learn, and then try again.   It doesn’t matter if your drinking straw bridge collapses. There are no real consequences – so I suppose, failure IS an option.

Which led me to ask, why don’t we have a safe space to fail in our development and humanitarian relief projects?  

My efforts to answer that question led me to a wealth of articles and blog posts on the topic of learning through experimentation (and occasionally through failure). Most of these articles are written from the perspective of businesses in the private sector. For example, one article in the Harvard Business Review was entitled Permission to Fail and explored the importance of  experimentation (and potentially failure) when managing risk.

So it seems that there is a developing awareness in the private sector that permission to fail is important – but for various reasons, we are not very good at doing it in the development and humanitarian relief sector.

As one article in Bright Magazine points out, “But for all of the sector’s eagerness to share their success stories, there is a taboo F-word: failure. This is not by accident. Not only does failure hurt, admitting to it can have serious ramifications for NGOs because much of their funding depends on success”.

As I reflect on my workshop participant who was looking for opportunities to experiment and learn from mistakes, I asked myself, “How does s/he get permission to fail in real life projects?” I don’t think I have yet come across an NGO that did not claim to be a learning organisation & yet, is this even possible, if people do not feel they have permission to fail?

 If we wait for our organisations to adopt a ‘permission to fail’ agenda, we will, I fear, grow old(er) waiting. Are there things we can do at a Project/Programme Manager level? I would love some ideas about what you have done or would like to do to create project cultures, where people feel able to talk about problems and failures.

Please don’t be shy – you have permission to fail!

P.S. In my exploration of learning from failure, I also found this website: It is based on the following belief “Failure happens. This is a community and a resource to encourage new levels of transparency, collaboration and innovation across the for-purpose sector”. Have fun reading!