Talk:Sharing Lessons and Worst Practices

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See the original thread of this E-Discussion on D-Groups

Charles Dhewa, 2009/01/30

Hie Colleagues!

In the interest of learning and, with so many organisations learning from mistakes, would it be a good idea to document and share knowledge on Worst Practices?. We have had much about Best Practices.

Any views and experiences on this?

Laxmi Pant, 2009/01/30

Dear all,

I love this discussion thread on whether we should learn from failures as well? In my own research, I am using two case studies - one being evaluated as a highly successful case and the other widely accepted as a dismal case of failure. My contention is that we can learn from both.

But the BIG question here is this: are we comfortable to report our failure? Don't we prefer to cover up failures and report only successes? What is the risk of reporting failures?

David Moss (2005)in his book "Cultivating Development" (Pluto Press)discusses the challenges of reporting/publishing critical stories upfront in the preface.

Amit Chakravarty, 2009/01/30

I absolutely agree. We can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. It is important to know "how not to do certain things". It saves valuable time and resources of future initiatives/projects. As already pointed out, nobody wants to discuss failures. Even if they are discussed the failures are sugar coated. I think rather than a bipolar classification of success or failure the focus should be on documenting and sharing learnings. Then the stigma of failure does not hurt.

Ram Babu Nepal, 2009/01/30

Dear all,

It would be definitely interesting to learn from failure stories. Who will be willing to share experience of failure? Hardly someone. People may not be comfortable to report on failures because it may have several ramifications. This is human nature. In case studies, the failures or underperformance can be highlighted as a reference to facilitate the assessment of success. Case studies can provide information on what did not work, caused failures and what did worked out and overcame failures. Descriptions on the lessons learned also provide background information on what did not worked well and what needs to be improved or done in the

Ernst Bolliger, 2009/01/30

Dear Colleagues

I think, learning from mistakes is very common and human - nobody likes =o hit his head twice in the same way.

Learning from mistakes however necessitates a climate of trust. Without =rust - and I think this is just a psychological phenomenon - we have =uch more interest to show our brillant side.

In our training and coaching events we always aim at learning from =istakes within the group: The first step is to build trust by declaring =ules of the games (learning culture) and by honestly admitting own =istakes.

However, by documenting and sharing worst practices on a open platform, = personnally would fear soon to be known as "Mister Worst Practice" and =hus loosing credibility. That is the hot spot: I do not tell the same =tories on an internet platform as I do in a f2f group where I more =ealistically can assess the level of trust. It is a question of =rganisational culture how far I go with openly admitting failures and =orst practice stories.

Nancy White, 2009/01/30

A dear and trusted facilitation colleague of mine introduced me to a method that allows a group to collectively explore worst practices. I have not tried it yet, but I am very interested in doing it.

Essentially, the group is asked to imagine the worst possible outcome, then design a system to ensure that outcome. Then the group examines the elements of that system and reflects if any of those elements are in play in their own work.

The purpose of this process, Keith told me, was to recognize what we are doing that is not productive and which can be removed to be replaced by things that are productive. So it is not exactly telling failure stories or sharing worst practices but building an alternative scenario based on what we know doesn't work. Read the page below. I'm not doing a very good job explaining at 6:30 in the morning!!

Fortunately, another group that used it with Keith made a video and shared a "how-to" page. If anyone tries it, I'd love to hear your stories back.

Eva Schiffer, 2009/01/30

Dear Nancy,

That's an approach that really appeals to my German mentality - we always =hink through all kinds of possible disasters to be prepared.

However, if you want to try this out in an intercultural setting, I'd be v=ry careful. When I just arrived in Ghana and planned my first big confere=ce, I had a culture clash experience with my Ghanaian colleagues about a =ery related issue. I asked them: What is the worst possible outcome and h=w can we prevent it. My colleagues refused to discuss that because they s=id: "If we focus on the negative here, we will get so de-motivated that w= will loose all our enthusiasm and never even start doing it, because we =ight fail. We prefer planning with the best possible result in mind and d=aling with the problems as they come along."

I thinks this points to a more general question of the cultural appropriat=ness of our tools and it would be great to utilize the cultural diversity=of our community to get some feedback on how certain methods work in the =ifferent cultural settings.

Ann Lily Marie O. Uvero, 2009/01/30

Dear all,

Very interesting discussions.

Part of KM is learning from mistakes to improve a strategy.

In one of the projects i was involved with, was the field staff recommended 2 sites - one was success story and the other one was not. As part of the exit conference, the sharing of the CBO leaders who visited proved to be a learning to the CBO visited and vice-versa (what not to replicate).

lessons learned workshop, in the organizational level, with partner communities involved, not only organic/project staff proved to be a feedback in streamlining process and how the future program strategy should evolved. But interesting to note that the partner communities agreed that the PMU did 100% of effort regardless of the "mistakes".

I also observed that admitting failures, is also cultural. One have to be careful in the facilitation process.

Stephan, 2009/01/30

I think we can learn very different things from good vs. bad practices. It seems to me that every project or initiative that succeeds does so for a pretty much unique combination of factors - that is why it is so hard to replicate. Good practices usually inspire me to look out for factors and ways of doing things I had not thought of before.

However, I am under the impression that failing initiatives mostly fail for the same reasons. Bad practice cases make me aware of a couple of critical factors, so that I become very conscious about avoiding these kind of the big no-no's.

Thus, we need to have both. However, I agree that there are not enough bad practices around. But I don't think that publishing a bad practice reflects bad on oneself - as long as it is not the kind of "I was lazy" or "I squandered the money" bad practice.

Thanks for starting this debate, hope to hear more on this,

Eva Schiffer, 2009/01/30

Dear Colleagues,

I think there is a general feeling that it can be difficult to share "wors= practice" because it makes you look useless. But even if I overcome that=fear, I think - especially if I share in a public forum - there is also t=e question of loyalty to everyone else involved in the failure. It's rare=that I failed in a one-woman-show and while I might be comfortable with s=aring problems, other people involved in the same project might think I'm=betraying their trust.

Tony Pryor, 2009/01/30

I think Steve Denning's point on this is very valid; you don't often =earn from a disaster, since you are running as fast as possible away =rom it, OR you are afraid that someone will overstate the problem and =ipe out funding for an entire sector. And you don't necessarily learn =rom a huge success, since you are so delighted that it's hard not to =ust view it as a poster child for success, without stepping back and =ry to find whether the things that went right would go right anywhere, =r were context-specific. Steve I think would argue that we usually =earn from the good idea that doesn't quite work up to full potential, =he modest failure, etc.

Many have already raised a key problem, though: how do you give people a =omfort level to speak the truth, to lay out the weaknesses, without =pening up oneself to unfair criticism from the outside. This can then =ead ONLY to "best practices", "success stories" and the like. This is =ot a trivial issue; both the World Bank and Company Command within the =S Army have said that the best way to get a community to open up and be =onest about what needs to be improved is to keep the door closed; limit =haring outside of that community. Of course, the response from =utside, in the case of Company Command, is "who do you think you are? =ou are only a part of the picture; how can we improve the overall =orporate entity, if you don't want to share with other communities"?

A key to any of this is to have a decent understanding as to what was to =e achieved in the first place, and to understand that in development =ew of the fundamental variables are within your full control. In some =nstances, failure occurs because "you got it wrong" but often it is =ecause things just worked abit differently than what we had assumed =uring design (possibly because something happened in between, a coup, a =lobal recession, etc.).

This then leads to a fundamental problem with case studies, evaluations, =tc. For me the point is not to launch an unguided missile and then =ritique its flight path after the fact, but rather to learn, change, =dapt and reconsider along the way. Except for the most egregious, I'd =refer to think of "failures and mistakes" instead as times when one can =earn and adjust.

Frey Faust, 2009/01/30

Dear Colleagues,

obviously positive approaches to learning are as importa=t as learning from mistakes, one's own as well as those of others. In my p=ofession, which is alot about restructuring individual potentially movemen= habits, I and my trainees and colleagues profit immensely from the cl=nical and empirical research that has been done on past practices. Injury =tatistics are usually the starting point for many scientific studies, pote=tially the concrete negative effects of those practices.

Of course, th= conclusions for preventative alterations can only be drawn if there is a =onsensus about what is healthy... and this is a still expanding field.

W=at I have noticed is that sometimes, even those practices which might caus= harm have positive effects when they are used at the right time. Also, =y students dont necessarily need to have the overview of what might harm t=em all the time, because being overly aware of the dangers can inhibit, an= inhibition brings with it its own dangers.

Steve Song, 2009/01/30

I think there is something to be said for "outing" failures. The trick is to do it with a bit of a sense of humour and a better idea.

Dare to share :-)

Paul Mundy, 2009/01/30

Here's a worst practice for you (names and places concealed so I don't breach the terms of contract):

  • The project is uneconomic. It involves building major infrastructure to benefit a relatively small group of farmers. The infrastructure is so

expensive and the expected benefits so small that the benefits will never cover the costs of the infrastructure.

  • The project is over-designed: it is complex and involves five groups of foreign and national consultants, two ministries, two project

implementation units, and a central coordinating unit to try to hold it all together.

  • Each of the foreign consultancy groups is required to report to a different ministry. These ministries do not talk to each other: the Ministry

of Infrastructure regards the Ministry of Agriculture as amateurish and ideology-driven, while the Ministry of Agriculture sees the Ministry of Engineering as concerned only with pouring concrete rather than trying to better the lot of farmers.

  • None of the foreign consultants speak the national language: not surprising since this is a country that has not ingratiated itself with

western governments, so international consultants with in-country experience are scarce.

  • Few of the staff in the project implementation units or the central coordinating unit are competent in their jobs: hiring policies in the

ministries emphasize loyalty to the regime rather than technical competence. Nepotism plays and important role in hiring staff. Few speak English, so most can communicate with the foreign staff only through an interpreter.

  • The foreign consultants have continual visa problems. Long-term staff have to leave the country every month or so to renew their visas.

Short-term staff must await a visa approval before they can take on an assignment.

  • All documents have to be translated into the local language or English. The project budget does cover translation costs. Automatic

translation software is available, but the manager of the central coordination unit refuses to buy it.

  • The project has a short-term international communication specialist (me!), who was hired to develop a communication strategy and do public

relations. The specialist recognized the need to improve internal communication, and recommended developing a website to handle this. The purchase of the necessary software is still pending (and has been for 2 years). It is not possible to use free online services as these are blocked by the paranoid government, and do not have a national language interface.

  • The international communication specialist had no national counterpart. When one was eventually hired, he resigned in frustration after

a year. His replacement is inexperienced and is also responsible for monitoring and evaluation and management information systems.

  • Most of the foreign consultants refuse to submit reports to the central coordination unit until they have been approved by their project

implementation unit. This can take months. The project implementation units refuse to submit anything to be uploaded onto the website.

  • The project has proved unattractive for foreign consultants and local staff alike. One team of consultants has had six team leaders in the

first three years of the project. Getting a new consultant staff member approved can take 6 months or more. The central coordination unit has had five different managers, and the management of both project implementation units has changed several times.

  • The consultants are supposed to develop systems and hand them over to local counterpart staff. These counterparts do not see it that way: they

want the consultants to do the work, while they comment and criticize.

  • The international communication specialist has discussed these problems at length with various managers, but they have not taken any


  • The international donor has failed to recognize these problems or take remedial action. Donor visits have been frequent and disruptive, but

have failed to solve any of these problems.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Anyone got anything worse?

Nancy White, 2009/01/30

The mistake bank

Jo Rowlands, 2009/01/30

Dear all,

I absolutely agree that learning fro= mistakes/failures is a powerful way to learn. I've never, however, had mu=h success in getting people to talk openly about failures, or produce case=studies of failure. Even though many of us know the theory of learning fro= failure, there are too many deeply engrained habits of negative judgement=around to make it easy to use that approach.

My=guess is that learning from one's own mistakes is actually the most powerf=l thing - rather than learning from other people's mistakes - so perh=ps the challenge is how to get self-reflexiveness into our ways of working=

In the meantime, I'm thinking that it might b= more useful to get people giving accounts of mistakes they've seen other =eople make, rather than their own! That would be less threatening. It's a =it like the research technique that has people being asked a question abou= 'other people like you' rather than directly about themselves when it's a=sensitive subject.

Global Programme Adviser (Governance & Institutional Accountabi=ity) Oxfam GB UK

Serafin D. Talisayon, 2009/01/30

Hi Charles and colleagues,

Last October 28 in my KM blog I listed 8 KM mistakes I made.

Director for R&D, Knowledge Innovation Expert.

John Gray, 2009/01/30

Why stop, Paul, just when we're all enjoying it?

Ann Lily Marie O. Uvero, 2009/01/31

Very true Paul, thanks for the astute enumeration!

Amanuel Assefa, 2009/01/31

Dear Charles,

In one of our knowledge management projects, which was supported by Oxfam Netherlands in 2006, the key guiding principles to identify, document and share knowledge on sustainable agriculture and gender in Ethiopia were- to find out Good, Bad and New practices. We have noted that people were shy to respond/ share bad practices indeed. In this specific example, we have got reports on 36 good practices but only 5 were reported for bad practices. In the learning and sharing workshop, which was organized following completion of the data collection exercise, many people were not even happy with the naming- bad practices. The project has defined bad practice as any practice that is some how institutionalized and for which reasonably high amount of resources are spend but ended up to be less worthy in economic, social or environmental terms. In such cases the organization/person who is doing the practice will not repeat it in the same way it used to be, if he/she is given a second chance. In other words, bad practices do not refer to those practices at experimental stage (not institutionalized yet).

Any how some of the reflections and observations made by the workshop participants in relation to bad practice are:

1. People are shy to report bad practices- because they may happen to be responsible for that (administrative reason) or have suppressive culture to talk about failures

2. Some people did not report bad practices because they were not aware of the fact that the practice they are dealing with, is really bad. Such people may tend to be aware about the extent of the badness when ever they get chance to know more about good practices along the same line.

3. In some cases bad practices were sources of innovation. It has been reported by some organization that having realized the bad practices they were dealing with, they have decided to spend lots of time, research, consultation etc so that to augment the problem-apparently leading to innovation.

Ssozi Javie, 2009/01/31

Hi Charles,

This is an interesting post/ idea.

Worst Practices is the opposite of Best Practices. Sometimes it is better to use: "Dont do this because if you do, the repercussions might be irreversible!"

Rather than using: "do this and things will work out well."

So sharing worst practices can be a good way of cautioning people resulting into best practices.

Serafin D. Talisayon, 2009/01/31

Hi Ssozi,

I agree with Amanuel that many people find that sharing "worst practice" is something difficult for them to do. I agree with you too, because not sharing worst or bad practice can be costly -- since others won't know what they don't know! I wrote about the cost of not sharing "bad/worst practice" on "Cost of Ignorance" in my KM blogsite last November 4

Director for R&D, Knowledge Innovation Expert.

Valerie A. Brown, 2009/01/31

One group I work with has a great way of dealing with best and worst. After the workshop or paper, the members of the group each say what they liked/learnt from best and then how they each think it could be improved. This puts the onus on the critic to think of something better, not just a negative. We also have the rule of "critical loyalty" - so long as it is clear that the members closely support each other and share a common goal, all critcism is mutually helpful to reaching that goal.

For myself, worst things in my own social learning practice are

1. thinking a new group is just like the last one, and so failing to wait to share their learning ; 2. flashing out a comment when I think a member is trying to sabotage the group - I should let the group do that; and 3. relapsing into academic language; I know it is crucial in co-development of knowledge to talk clear, first principle language, but I revert to my old academic self.

Emeritus Professor, University of Western Sydney.

Peter J. Bury, 2009/02/01


Absolutely an online event sounds great (anyway this is already becoming an event ;-)). Lets take it up in the discussions about forthcoming KM4Dev activities and events.


To you the question: how do you think the discussion is going? Is this what you are looking for? And most intriguingly to, what type of cases did you have in mind yourself when raising this issue?

To all,

What to me would be most interesting is to hear from those (and some are around for sure) who were/are not on the 'offering' side but on the 'enduring' side!

I enjoy the flow

Matt Moore, 2009/02/01


Not sure if this got mentioned in the conversation already but this is an example of learning from mistakes

Worst practices are as important as good practices however there's a point to made about who we admit mistakes to and when. We are far more likely to talk about failure to people we trust in a private situation. I imagine different cultures also have different tolerances for when & where this happens.

Margaret Jack, 2009/02/01

From a lurker in response to Peter's request for boarder input:

It seems that most contributors think people will be unwilling to admit to their failures or worst practices. This suggests a few things to me:

1. If best practice is something that KM is currently questioning and moving away from, why would one want to replicate the "problems" of best practice with those of worst practice, ie, best practice is highly context-driven and happened in the past and worst practice will be the same. We know that because of these factors your best practice might not be mine so why would worst practice avoid this pitfall.

2. There is also the suggestion that some people do not know they are committing "worst practice", suggesting that best and worst practice need some standardised judgement of competence, ie we did this well or we did this very badly. Who will be the judges and create the definitions of "best" and "worst".

3. Best practice often emerges at the end of a project cycle when conditions on the ground have changed and this makes the lessons questionable since they could not be applied a second time around and get the same results. In other words, you cannot step into the same river twice.

What makes more sense to me is to have a focus on what individuals in the project are learning about their own development practice. This incorporates ideas of what is good and what is worse but it keeps the judgement located within the individuals and removes the lessons from a specific (context-driven) project to broad development practice. But most importantly, this reflection on what one is learning should take place regularly, not just at the end of the project. So the questions become: What am I learning from this? How can I incorporate these lessons into my planning in order to do a better job? This might be something that people are more likely to share without the idea of failure looming above them.

Deppendra Tandukar, 2009/02/02

I would say, the mistakes should be documented as 'what did not work' but with all the context and situation at which it did not work. And, I believe this will give the alternative pathways to get succeed the next time when you have to go through the similar project/path as you already know the pitfalls - you will be more careful and avoid those pitfalls.

Frey Faust, 2009/02/02

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to share that I find a very tricky pitfall in our org is that personnel preparation creates the need to consolidate education criteria, and this in turn formalizes the training and the training periods. Individualized approaches and fluid modification of systems adaptation stumble over these formalized criteria in two ways: one is that, when there is a consequent effort to update the approaches to more effective methods, those who were trained under older criteria are left behind or need to be updated, and two: the updating process causes delays and confusion as the older systems are re-vamped, because terminology has to be practiced and remembered before it can be deployed, because the reflex to do things in a certain order from habit causes hesitation, and hesitation brings a slew of minor mis-management events with it.

I am often faced with the prospect of over-turning an operating precept because of new information... and I hesitate often, knowing that we will be several months recovering.

Any suggestions?

Artistic director of The Nomadic College, Originator of The Axis Syllabus.

Mario Marais, 2009/02/03

Not sure this helps, but I've always been impressed by John Seely Brown of XEROX's distinction between organisational processes and the practices that make them work (In the book "The social life of information" if I recall). Maybe your operating precept is a combination of processes and practices, or it is actually at the practice level, at the essence level, which says how and why do we make this work for us? Processes are easy to change, practices not....and practices teach you how people actually make them work and what drives the work-arounds.

Frey Faust, 2009/02/03

Thanks for responding Mario and the literature tip,

I think process and practice are so closely wed in our work that it is as difficult to separate them as it is the seed from its destiny as a tree. Since our processing work is immediately translated into practice, and has a direct influence on the quality of the lives we touch through the information exchange, it is imperative to continuously update theory to fact and be on our guard about the unstable nature of some of these facts. In fact it is our responsibility to change our practices through the process of research, review, critique, and procedure updating.

I suppose you need a concrete instance...

For example, clinical data strongly supports the idea that the Tibia rotates internally when the knee flexes. Often however, human motion training systems and knee flexing traditions do not reflect or respect this bio-mechanical report. Given the epidemic stats on knee OPs and replacements and other degrees of degeneration in teens to the elderly, it would be logical to assume that there might be a discrepancy between what we know and what we practice. If we, as movement educators do not update our information and chance our practice accordingly to include the clinically suggested biomechanics of the knee, we can also accept at least some of the blame for the injuries that result from the dutiful appropriation of our counsel and example. So this is the goad that forces us to progress... a good thing... but causes a bit of wasted energy... confusion and tends to exclusivity...

Ernst Bolliger, 2009/02/09

Dear Charles

After having gone through most of the contributions about "sharing worst practice" and specially through Apin Talisayon's honest way of sharing his lessons (I would not speak of worst practice, maybe sub-optimal or second best practice) on his blog I get the feeling that we are discussing about to issues: worst practice and lessons (learned or not learned).

The long list of worst practice in Paul Mundy's contribution (dated 30.1.) is a long list of facts, of lessons not yet learned or lessons to be learned. The open question: Who will consider these facts, draw conclusions and learn (what) lessons?

This brings together the discussion about worst practice and lessons (to be learned / learned / still not yet learned?)

Serafin D. Talisayon, 2009/02/13

Thank you Ernst.

Encouraged by your remark, I added 8 more items in Oops! (Learn from My KM Mistakes) in my blog.

Director for R&D, Knowledge Innovation Expert.