Learning to fail

Often we celebrate success and seldom talk about failures. In a modern work-space it is difficult to imagine an environment where we confidently and openly talk about failures. In evaluation meetings we focus our energies on ‘best practices’ but less on ‘lessons learnt’. For me, success and failure are impostors, and I believe that the process leading to either or in some cases neither is key.

Habitually we do not want to try innovative ideas for we fear failure, and now and again the magic associated with naivetés of trying new and untested technologies is treated as a liability; so (hush hush) these things are off limits as we are super engrossed in conducting evaluations and finishing reports in an ever evolving professional work-space. Getting things right at the first go might be valid from a project management perspective, but is that realistic when we talk about trying to change the world and inspire others by demonstrating something unique or niche.

When we tried piloting simple low cost water level sensors in the foothills of the Karnali basin, West Nepal, we failed spectacularly. The rationale of trying the technology was not to replace the existing monitoring system but to test if these affordable water level sensors can provide redundancy to the current systems which are rather expensive to operate. First, we tried with acoustic sensors and realized that its capability was limited for large rivers and there was a spider nest in one of the equipment when we tried extracting the data. I was lucky not to get bitten. Nevertheless, three months later we tried again with LiDAR sensors, only to realize that the battery connection was weak and there was no data, yet again after few months we changed the sensor specification and are now nervously hoping that it would record some data.

Piloting low cost water level sensors in lower Karnali River, West Nepal

Whilst these sensors worked perfectly fine in laboratory conditions, we were appalled to see irregular field behaviour. Ah! The fallacies of being too research oriented and mechanistic – but the spark generated by the excitement of trying something innovative and trusting ones instinct was unparalleled. Perhaps one can conclude that the senor technologies did not adapt well in mountainous environment. Despite trying multiple times, are we ready to give in to criticism or failures? Nah! We are ready to fail again, not because we have the funding to fail but we are keen to look into the technical issues on why the sensors did not record data and what can be improved? The possibility of the sensors working well with real time data transmission and solar panels excites us. The sheer joy of ‘trying again’ is pure bliss! We are un(cautiously) confident that this technology might work one day and has the potential to change the spectrum of early warning and environmental observations. However, perseverance is critical, and not being deterred is crucial.

International development is evolving in radical ways and while these changes are happening subtly, it surely does demand that we evolve from normative ways of thinking and styles of working. Yet we still fancy being on the safe side and avoid talking calculated risks. Having failed many times in the past, we are not scared of failing any more rather we are eagerly awaiting for the next opportunity to fail, and Failing is Fun when you have colleagues and supervisors that support you in the process. When we start celebrating failures as equally as success that is when magic happens.

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