So you’ve been working hard at making a big difference in your beneficiaries’ lives, you’ve dutifully collected your monitoring data, implemented programme changes as a result of your data and your mid-term evaluation, and commissioned your end of project evaluation.

Then your evaluator calls and tells you they have to meet with you urgently as the results from their data collection highlight that a core component of your project has not been as successful as you thought it had been.  In fact it hasn’t been successful at all.

What do you do?  Break into a cold sweat because you’re going to have to explain this to your manager and possibly the board?  Blame the monitoring data collection process for not picking up the problem earlier on in the project?  Blame the mid-term data for not spotting a potential issue?  Blame the evaluator for getting it so obviously wrong, after all you know that you’re making a difference?  All of the above?

These days there is a lot of pressure from senior management and from donors to produce exceptional results all the time (a symptom of this results-based culture).  But the reality is that sometimes, things do go wrong; interventions don’t work and beneficiaries are worse off (or at best, no better off) as a result.  There is no clause that says just because this is international development, there can be no failures, no set backs, no failed pilot projects.  How else do we learn if not from our failures and those projects that don’t go according to plan?

Mostly poor results and failures are swept under the rug, go unpublished and are often ignored in future project planning.

But this is completely the wrong approach.  I am not saying celebrate your failures in the same way you celebrate your successes.  What you should do however is take the opportunity to understand what went wrong (or not as well as you wanted) and find ways to improve future projects and interventions so that you don’t make the same mistakes again.

It takes guts to own up to negative results and, yes, that is a difficult conversation to have with the donor.  But if you are able to objectively consider how and why this all happened and champion the changes that can make your work better, then the funding, the years of field work and the imapct on the beneficiaries will not have been in vain.

Remember, no one can get it right all the time.  What matters is what you do with your failures.  Do you use them to become better at what you do?  Or do you sweep them under the rug and carry on doing what you do?

How does your organisation deal with negative results?


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