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Archive for the ‘failure’ Category

Back in May I participated in a discussion on if and how International Civil Society Organizations (ICSOs) are adapting to changes around them. Here’s my summary of the conversations: Can International Civil Society Organizations be nimble?

A final report from the meeting is ready (download Riding the Wave: A proposal for Boards and CEOs on how to prepare their organizations for disruptive change) and here’s a video summary:

I’m curious what other folks think about this topic and the analysis and recommendations in the report.

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This post was originally published on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog

A core theme that the Open Development track covered at September’s Open Knowledge Conference was Ethics and Risk in Open Development. There were more questions than answers in the discussions, summarized below, and the Open Development working group plans to further examine these issues over the coming year.

Informed consent and opting in or out

Ethics around ‘opt in’ and ‘opt out’ when working with people in communities with fewer resources, lower connectivity, and/or less of an understanding about privacy and data are tricky. Yet project implementers have a responsibility to work to the best of their ability to ensure that participants understand what will happen with their data in general, and what might happen if it is shared openly.

There are some concerns around how these decisions are currently being made and by whom. Can an NGO make the decision to share or open data from/about program participants? Is it OK for an NGO to share ‘beneficiary’ data with the private sector in return for funding to help make a program ‘sustainable’? What liabilities might donors or program implementers face in the future as these issues develop?

Issues related to private vs. public good need further discussion, and there is no one right answer because concepts and definitions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ data change according to context and geography.

Informed participation, informed risk-taking

The ‘do no harm’ principle is applicable in emergency and conflict situations, but is it realistic to apply it to activism? There is concern that organizations implementing programs that rely on newer ICTs and open data are not ensuring that activists have enough information to make an informed choice about their involvement. At the same time, assuming that activists don’t know enough to decide for themselves can come across as paternalistic.

As one participant at OK Con commented, “human rights and accountability work are about changing power relations. Those threatened by power shifts are likely to respond with violence and intimidation. If you are trying to avoid all harm, you will probably not have any impact.” There is also the concept of transformative change: “things get worse before they get better. How do you include that in your prediction of what risks may be involved? There also may be a perception gap in terms of what different people consider harm to be. Whose opinion counts and are we listening? Are the right people involved in the conversations about this?”

A key point is that whomever assumes the risk needs to be involved in assessing that potential risk and deciding what the actions should be — but people also need to be fully informed. With new tools coming into play all the time, can people be truly ‘informed’ and are outsiders who come in with new technologies doing a good enough job of facilitating discussions about possible implications and risk with those who will face the consequences? Are community members and activists themselves included in risk analysis, assumption testing, threat modeling and risk mitigation work? Is there a way to predict the likelihood of harm? For example, can we determine whether releasing ‘x’ data will likely lead to ‘y’ harm happening? How can participants, practitioners and program designers get better at identifying and mitigating risks?

When things get scary…

Even when risk analysis is conducted, it is impossible to predict or foresee every possible way that a program can go wrong during implementation. Then the question becomes what to do when you are in the middle of something that is putting people at risk or leading to extremely negative unintended consequences. Who can you call for help? What do you do when there is no mitigation possible and you need to pull the plug on an effort? Who decides that you’ve reached that point? This is not an issue that exclusively affects programs that use open data, but open data may create new risks with which practitioners, participants and activists have less experience, thus the need to examine it more closely.

Participants felt that there is not enough honest discussion on this aspect. There is a pop culture of ‘admitting failure’ but admitting harm is different because there is a higher sense of liability and distress. “When I’m really scared shitless about what is happening in a project, what do I do?” asked one participant at the OK Con discussion sessions. “When I realize that opening data up has generated a huge potential risk to people who are already vulnerable, where do I go for help?” We tend to share our “cute” failures, not our really dismal ones.

Academia has done some work around research ethics, informed consent, human subject research and use of Internal Review Boards (IRBs). What aspects of this can or should be applied to mobile data gathering, crowdsourcing, open data work and the like? What about when citizens are their own source of information and they voluntarily share data without a clear understanding of what happens to the data, or what the possible implications are?

Do we need to think about updating and modernizing the concept of IRBs? A major issue is that many people who are conducting these kinds of data collection and sharing activities using new ICTs are unaware of research ethics and IRBs and don’t consider what they are doing to be ‘research’. How can we broaden this discussion and engage those who may not be aware of the need to integrate informed consent, risk analysis and privacy awareness into their approaches?

The elephant in the room

Despite our good intentions to do better planning and risk management, one big problem is donors, according to some of the OK Con participants.  Do donors require enough risk assessment and mitigation planning in their program proposal designs? Do they allow organizations enough time to develop a well-thought-out and participatory Theory of Change along with a rigorous risk assessment together with program participants? Are funding recipients required to report back on risks and how they played out? As one person put it, “talk about failure is currently more like a ‘cult of failure’ and there is no real learning from it. Systematically we have to report up the chain on money and results and all the good things happening. and no one up at the top really wants to know about the bad things. The most interesting learning doesn’t get back to the donors or permeate across practitioners. We never talk about all the work-arounds and backdoor negotiations that make development work happen. This is a serious systemic issue.”

Greater transparency can actually be a deterrent to talking about some of these complexities, because “the last thing donors want is more complexity as it raises difficult questions.”

Reporting upwards into government representatives in Parliament or Congress leads to continued aversion to any failures or ‘bad news’. Though funding recipients are urged to be innovative, they still need to hit numeric targets so that the international aid budget can be defended in government spaces. Thus, the message is mixed: “Make sure you are learning and recognizing failure, but please don’t put anything too serious in the final report.” There is awareness that rigid program planning doesn’t work and that we need to be adaptive, yet we are asked to “put it all into a log frame and make sure the government aid person can defend it to their superiors.”

Where to from here?

It was suggested that monitoring and evaluation (M&E) could be used as a tool for examining some of these issues, but M&E needs to be seen as a learning component, not only an accountability one. M&E needs to feed into the choices people are making along the way and linking it in well during program design may be one way to include a more adaptive and iterative approach. M&E should force practitioners to ask themselves the right questions as they design programs and as they assess them throughout implementation. Theory of Change might help, and an ethics-based approach could be introduced as well to raise these questions about risk and privacy and ensure that they are addressed from the start of an initiative.

Practitioners have also expressed the need for additional resources to help them predict and manage possible risk: case studies, a safe space for sharing concerns during implementation, people who can help when things go pear-shaped, a menu of methodologies, a set of principles or questions to ask during program design, or even an ICT4D Implementation Hotline or a forum for questions and discussion.

These ethical issues around privacy and risk are not exclusive to Open Development. Similar issues were raised last week at the Open Government Partnership Summit sessions on whistle blowing, privacy, and safeguarding civic space, especially in light of the Snowden case. They were also raised at last year’s Technology Salon on Participatory Mapping.

A number of groups are looking more deeply into this area, including the Capture the Ocean Project, The Engine Room, IDRC’s research network, The Open Technology InstitutePrivacy InternationalGSMA, those working on “Big Data,” those in the Internet of Things space, and others.

I’m looking forward to further discussion with the Open Development working group on all of this in the coming months, and will also be putting a little time into mapping out existing initiatives and identifying gaps when it comes to these cross-cutting ethics, power, privacy and risk issues in open development and other ICT-enabled data-heavy initiatives.

Please do share information, projects, research, opinion pieces and more if you have them!

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About 15 years ago, I was at a regional management meeting where a newly hired colleague was introduced. The guy next to me muttered “Welcome to the Titanic.”

In the past 20 years, we’ve seen the disruption of the record, photo, newspaper, and other industries. Though music, photos, and news continue to play a big role in people’s lives, the old ‘owners’ of the space were disrupted by changes in technology and new expectations from consumers. Similar changes are happening in the international civil society space, and organizations working there need to think more systematically about what these changes mean.

I spent last week with leadership from a dozen or so international civil society organizations (ICSOs) thinking about what is disrupting our space and strategizing about how to help the space, including our organizations, become more resilient and adaptive to disruption. Participants in the meeting came from several types of organizations (large INGOs doing service delivery and policy work, on-line organizing groups, social enterprises, think tanks, and big campaigning organizations), both new and old, headquartered and/or founded in both the “North” and the “South.”

We approached discussions from the premise that, like music, photos, and news; our sector does have value and does serve an important function. The world is not a perfect place, and government and the private sector need to be balanced and kept in check by a strong and organized “third sector.” However, many ICSOs are dinosaurs whose functions may be replaced by new players and new ways of working that better fit the external environment.

Changes around and within organizations are being prompted by a number of converging factors, including new technology, global financial shifts, new players and ways of working, and new demands from “beneficiaries,” constituencies, and donors. All of these involve shifting power. On top of power shifts, an environmental disaster looms (because we are living beyond the means of the planet), and we see civil society space closing in many contexts while at the same time organized movements are forcing open space for civic uprising and citizen voice.

ICSOs need to learn how to adapt to the shifting shape and context of civil society, and to work and collaborate in a changing ecosystem with new situations and new players. This involves:

  • Detecting and being open to changes and potential disruptors
  • Preparing in a long-term, linear way by creating more adaptive, iterative and resilient organizations
  • Responding quickly and nimbly to disruption and crises when they hit

Key elements of preparing for and navigating disruption are:

  • Maintaining trust and transparency – both internally and externally
  • Collective action
  • Adaptability
  • Being aware of and able to analyze and cope with power shifts

Organization cannot prepare for every specific disruption or crisis, and the biggest crises and shocks come out of nowhere. ICSOs should however become more adaptive and agile by creating built-in responsiveness. We surfaced a number of ideas for getting better at this:

  • Networking/Exchange: actively building networks, learning across sectors, engaging and working with non-traditional partners, bringing in external thinkers and doers for exchange and learning
  • Trend spotting and constant monitoring: watching and participating in spaces where potential disruptions are springing up (for example, challenge funds, contest and innovation prizes); exit interviews to understand why innovative staff are leaving, where they are going, and why; scanning a wide range of sources (staff, people on the ground, traditional media, social media, political analysts) including all ICSO’s audiences – eg., donors, supporters, communities
  • Predicting. Keeping predictable shocks on the radar (hurricane season, elections) and preparing for them, scenario planning as part of the preparatory phase
  • Listening: Ensuring that middle level, often unheard parts of the organization are listened to and that there are open and fluid communication lines between staff and middle and upper management; listening to customers, users, beneficiaries, constituencies; basically listening to everyone
  • Confident humility: Being humble and open, yet also confident, systematic and not desperate/chaotic
  • Meta-learning: Finding systematic ways to scan what is happening and understand it; learning from successes and failures at the ‘meta’ and the cross-sector level not just the organizational or project level
  • Slack time: Giving staff some slack for thinking, experimenting and reflecting; establishing a system for identifying what an organization can stop doing to enable staff to have slack time to think and be creative and try new things
  • Training. Ensuring that staff have skills to do strategic decision making, monitoring, scenario planning
  • Decentralized decision-making. Allow local pods and networks to take control of decision-making rather than having all decisions weighed in on by everyone or taking place at the top or the center; this should be backed by policies and protocols that enable quick decision making at the local level and quick communication across the organization
  • Trust. Hiring staff you can trust and trusting your staff (human resources departments need strengthening in order to do this well; they need to better understand the core business and what kind of staff an organization needs in these new times)

Culture, management, and governance changes are all needed to improve an organization’s ability to adapt. Systems need to be adjusted so that organizations can be more flexible and adaptive. Organizational belief systems and values also need to shift. Trying out adaptive actions and flexible culture in small doses to develop an organization’s comfort level and confidence and helping to amass shared experience of acting in a new way can help move an organization forward. Leadership should also work to identify innovation across the organization, highlight it, and scale it, and to reward staff who take risk and experiment rather than punishing them.

These changes are very difficult for large, established organizations. Staff and management tend to be overworked and spread thin as it is, managing an existing workload and with little “slack time” to manage change processes. In addition, undesignated funds are shrinking, meaning that organizations have little funding to direct towards new areas or for scanning and preparing, testing and learning. Many organizations are increasingly locked into implementing projects and programs per a donor’s requirements and there are few resources to strategize and focus on organizational adaptation and change. Contractual commitments and existing promises and community partnerships can make it difficult for ICSOs to stop doing certain programs in order to dedicate resources to new areas. The problem is usually not a shortage of innovative ideas and opportunities, but rather the bandwidth to explore and test them, and the systems for determining which ideas are most likely to succeed so that scarce resources can be allocated to them.

Despite all the challenges, the organizations in the room were clear that ICSOs need to change and disrupt themselves, because if they don’t, someone else will. We profiled three types of organizations: the conservative avoider, the opportunistic navigator, and the active disruptor, and determined that the key to survival for many ICSOs will be “dialing up the pain of staying the same and reducing the pain of changing.”

What might an adaptive organization look like?

  • Focused on its mission, not its traditional means of achieving the mission (get across the water in the best way possible, don’t worry if it’s via building a bridge or taking a boat or swimming)
  • Not innovating for the sake of innovation or disrupting for the sake of it – accompanying innovation and disruption with longer-term and systematic follow through
  • Periodically updating its mission to reflect the times
  • Piloting, gaining experience, monitoring, evaluating, building evidence and learning iteratively and at the meta-level from trends and patterns
  • Sub-granting to new, innovative players and seeding new models
  • Open, in the public domain, supporting others to innovate, decentralized, networked, flexible, prepared for new levels of transparency
  • Systematically discovering new ways of working and new partners, testing them, learning and mainstreaming them
  • Keeping its ear to the ground
  • Learning to exit and say no in order to free up slack time to experiment and try new things

Many “dinosaur” organizations are adopting a head-in-the-sand approach, believing that they can rely on their age, their hierarchical systems and processes, or their brand to carry them through the current waves of change. This is no longer enough, and we can expect some of these organizations to die off. Other organizations are in the middle of an obvious shift where parts of the organization are pushing to work under new rules but other parts are not ready. This internal turmoil, along with the overstretched staff, and ineffective boards in some cases, make it difficult to deal with external disruption while managing internal change.

Newer organizations and those that are the closest to the ground seem to have the best handle on disruption. They tend to be more adaptive and nimble, whereas those far from the ground can be insulated from external realities and less aware of the need for ISCOs to change. Creating a “burning platform” can encourage organizational change and a sense of urgency, however, this type of change effort needs to be guided by a clear and positive vision of why change is needed, where change is heading, and why it will be beneficial to achieving an organization’s mission.

After our week of intense discussions, the group felt we still had not answered the question: Can ISCOs be nimble? As in any ecosystem, as the threats and problems to civil society shift and change, a wide array of responses from a number of levels, players and approaches is necessary. Some will not be fit or will not adapt and will inevitably die off. Others will shift to occupy a new space. Some will swallow others up or replace them. Totally new ones will continue to arise. For me, the important thing in the end is that the problems that civil society addresses are dealt with, not that individual organizations maintain their particular position in the ecosystem.

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This is a guest post by (my boss) Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan International USA. Tessie presented at Fail Faire DC last night. These are her thoughts on the event, and about failure in general.

I attended the most extraordinary event, hosted by the World Bank and organized and sponsored by a variety of organizations including Development Gateway, Inveneo, Jhpiego, and Facilitating Change.

The objective of the event was to share our failures using technology in a development context, and to be bold, forthright, honest, and (this is very important when talking about one’s shortcomings!) humorous. There were 10 presenters (including me).   We all agreed to be on the record.   The event, and the fact that I agreed to be on the record did make my IT and Communications teams a wee bit anxious.  But I was keen to take on this opportunity.

We do not celebrate failure often enough.  But we should.  As Tim Harford has said in his very entertaining book, Adapt, “Few company bosses would care to admit it, but the market fumbles its way to success, as successful ideas take off and unsuccessful ones die.  When we see the survivors of this process – such as…General Electric and Procter and Gamble – we shouldn’t merely see success.  We should also see the long, tangled history of failure…”

In my presentation I spoke about what I call organizational kryptonite (all the geeky readers out there like me will know that kryptonite is matter that weakens – and slowly kills with extended exposure – Superman):  being silent about your failures.  If we do not share – and learn from – failures, we will never learn what works.  If we do not take risks, and encourage experimentation, we will never advance.  The successful organizations are those that motivate risk taking. As well as transparency and openness, about what is working and what is not.

So I attended this Fail Fair, and happily shared with the audience our various challenges (a nice euphemism don’t you think?) with the application of technology for not just what I could learn (and I learned a lot) but also for what attending and presenting says about Plan.  We are failing.  And in that failure we are learning, adapting and advancing, and therefore improving our ability to improve the lives of children around the world.

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