This week I presented a failure at Failfaire. In presenting, I have learned something about the process of talking about failure. I presented (or I thought I was presenting) my failure to connect an amazing innovation (the Water Canary – a low-cost device for instant water testing that developed from our Design for UNICEF class at NYU) to the right part of UNICEF.
What people heard was something different.
This is a post about why, and some ideas on how to present failures better in the future.
Here’s what I was presenting: My failure to incubate an innovation inside UNICEF.
Here’s what I was not presenting: A project failure.
I tried to describe the complexities of the UNICEF ecosystem. I wanted to present how the Water Canary team took a project and continued to develop it into something that is robust and inventive – and possibly revolutionary.
The point of my presentation was that I failed to identify where inside of UNICEF Water Canary could fit. Water Canary devices provide real-time water quality information. That focus better matches the agenda of our logistics experts rather than our water experts, however – something that I did not consider when introducing the devices to UNICEF.
That organizational distinction (water and sanitation vs. logistics) makes a lot of sense to me. It made so much sense to me that I didn’t explain it very well to others. But that is because I sit inside an organization where those words (water and sanitation, logistics) have immediate and distinct connotations. I tried to translate those words at FailFaire, but clearly I did a bad job.
From the tweets at the event, and from what people took away, it must have sounded like “Water Canary did not work” and “Water Canary wasn’t tested with end users” – but when I presented this internally, at UNICEF last week, I got very different feedback: “Oh, of course you connected to the wrong part of the org chart,” and “Well, here is how you could have done this better.” The internal audience is familiar with the ecosystem, and shared the same language with me.
Just to be clear: Water Canary is not a fail.
I think I would break up with Failure if we were dating. Here is why:
Failure is needy: If you present a failure that is linked to a product *even if that product isn’t the failure* it seems like that product doesn’t work, or was badly designed, or was, itself, the fail.
Failure is jealous: You need to really own every part of the failure you are presenting. Don’t present around, or near, other peoples’ projects unless you’re trying to be mean.
Failure lacks subtlety: If you are describing a failure *within* a system and that system is big and bulky (like our organizational structure) – you may sound like you are actually presenting a failure of that system, or something else entirely.
The Water Canary is a cool project. It did not fail vis-a-vis UNICEF. The Water Canary folks talked to experts in the field, and in “the field” and developed the device with them. It has scope in a variety of different applications. We are excited to be one of those applications, and will be testing a version of Water Canary in Uganda. And I should have presented on a different failure. But at least I’ve got a topic for my next Failfaire.