Making SELCO Foundation a safe place to fail- a pragmatic approach

It has been a year since I took lead of the Housing for Urban Migrants (HUM) Project – an attempt to finding a workable solution to the housing crisis faced by poor, vulnerable, transient communities in India’s cities. The project faced setbacks repeatedly – from uncompromising landlords to beneficiaries refusing the slightest of changes citing ludicrous misconceptions, from social strife along caste lines to non–performance of products and materials as expected. The uncertainties inherent to these communities only amplified the risks involved. Soon, all that remained after the dust settled, were a string of failures.

HUM1

When it comes to failing, our egos are our own worst enemies. As soon as things start going wrong, our defense mechanisms kick in, tempting us to do what we can to save face. At times we transfer blame, others blame themselves, and some engage in “hedonic editing” – trying to convince themselves that the mistake doesn’t matter, and trying to find some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.

People say “Failures are the stepping stones to success”, but what happens failure becomes a norm? What does it really indicate?

One of my biggest personal learnings while heading the HUM project was that the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes. Iterative process is fine, until one asks iteration at whose cost? Can we continue with the trials and failures at the expense of vulnerable communities? I will park this question for now and come back to it.

If I were to tabulate the learnings from the failures of the project, it will easily outnumber those from our successes. It wouldn’t be outlandish of me to recommend today to those stuck with a difficult problem, to expose themselves to a lot of different ideas and approaches, on the grounds that failure is common and inevitable. If you are afraid of failure, then you cannot expect innovation. In fact, I believe we compromise on the true potential impact of a solution if we are unkind to failures and experiment with lowered risks. When somebody comes up to me these days and ask me what exactly we learnt from the HUM project, I boast with confidence replying “We know now how not to build a house for the poor!”

HUM2

This approach is borderline recklessness unless it is counterbalanced; which is the easiest to state and hardest to stick to know when you’ve failed! We’ve been trained that “persistence pays off,” so it feels wrong to cut our losses and label an idea a failure. But if you’re truly self-aware and are able to recognize a failure, it means that you’ll be able to recast it into something more likely to succeed. We learnt this last year in July when we realized that if we focused on a ‘skin’ incorporating the parameters we needed in a house, then it would significantly reduce our issues. Adaptation to repeated failures determines whether you give up or you improve.

It’s very easy to write off a failure or on the other end of the spectrum- be very comfortable with the idea of failing and say- it’s a norm in an iterative process. But how do we go beyond this and analyse the failure itself. Can we break a failure down into factors. And look at analysing each of them to see if they had worked say in another geography or sector, under very different circumstances? For example the ‘SELCO’ model of energy access would have failed 20 years back had we attempted it in remote parts of Odisha or the North East when the ecosystem required for it was not mature enough- whether it is financing or infrastructure. Failures result in innovations only when it is incubated in a conducive environment.

For me, college was an amazing safe space to fail. We know that as long as we don’t mess up too dramatically, we’ll finish college, graduate, and move on – that mix of risk and safety is intoxicating. But in the real world, with real stakes and in this case the lives of our vulnerable communities, failing and simply moving on is not an option. Each time we fail, vulnerable communities indirectly shoulder the burden of my learning process.

So what could be a more pragmatic response to failures? Some questions to ask oneself as a response to a string of failures could be- am I putting all my rigour, all my effort and know-how into solving this problem? Am I reinventing the wheel in any way? That is, can I call and speak to someone who seems to have succeeded in solving some part of the problem chain (if not have the full solution)?
Creating a safe place to fail is imperative to any organization that boasts of being innovative! But we shouldn’t lose the sight of the pragmatic aspects either. Let’s be clear of the urgency of issues! The poor, vulnerable and the unserved can’t wait while we fail. Not for months, nor weeks, not even days. They lack the support systems which we have! So while failing may be imperative in the process of solution building, let’s also push ourselves to be pragmatic solution providers!