Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, sociologist, and philosopher, observed: “Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.” Programs frequently achieve some of their original goals, while missing others.  In some cases, they achieve unintended results, both desirable and undesirable.  In other cases, programs fail to achieve any of the original outcomes (i.e., changes, results) they intended at all.

Discovering New Information in Failure
Rather than identifying a program’s unachieved results as merely program failure, we need to rethink what we can learn from failures. What do program failures tell us about what we do that’s ineffective or otherwise misses the mark? By understanding how and why programs don’t achieve the results they intend, we can design and execute improved programs in the future. It is important to note that psychological research has shown that individuals learn more from failure than they do from success. Our goals should be to learn from our defeats and to surmount them—especially in programs that address critical social, educational, and human service needs. Learning from the challenges that confront these kinds of programs can have a powerful impact of the success of future programming.

Of course programs shouldn’t seek to fail, but they should seek to learn from the challenges that they encounter.  Constructive program evaluation can help organizations to learn what they need to be doing more effectively, and point the way to strengthened programming and enhanced results.  Constructive program evaluation identifies challenges, analyzes why such challenges detract from desired outcomes, and helps program sponsors and implementers to understand how to strengthen and refine programming so that the next iteration achieves its goals.

Brad Rose Consulting, Inc. is committed to conducting program evaluations that help program managers, funders, and stakeholders to ensure successful program design, accurately measure results, and make timely adjustments in order to maximize positive program impacts. To learn more about our commitment to learning from failure visit our Feedback & Continuous improvement page.

Samuel Becket wrote, “Ever tried.  Ever Failed.  No matter.  Try again. Fail again.  Fail better.”
See: “Embracing Failure,” an article at the Asian Development Bank

See also the website
*This post is indebted to a lively and productive discussion which appeared on the American Evaluation Association’s listserv October, 2012.

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