The Importance of Acknowledging and Learning from Failure: Do-Fail-Learn-Do

SELCO Foundation
3 min readFeb 23, 2023

Failures are bound to happen when we work on complex, dynamic, mutating social problems. Resilient and trusted systems are not systems that don’t break; rather they are systems that function under failure. Through discussions with the panelists Viraj Tyagi, CEO, e-Gov Foundation, Jayamala Subramaniam, CEO of Arghyam, and moderated by Vyjanthi Mala, Chief Orchestrator of Societal Platform, they share their experiences in the ecosystem. The session answered questions like, How do failures look at scale? How should we proactively design for them? And how to stay operational despite the failures?

The top three themes that emerged from the conversation highlighted that failures at scale are generative, that in the process of doing development work, to recognise and acknowledge failure was in itself a success. The speakers also talked about overcoming the temptation of Do-Fail-Do and following, instead, the importance of do-fail-learn-do. As Vyjanthi Mala, noted in her talk, “We are not chasing scale, scale is chasing us. The status quo is not an option, our mission gives us an opportunity to fail spectacularly but we may also win magically. As messy as failures may be at scale, it is only a journey from point A to point B carrying a bag of lessons.”

Viraj Tyagi spoke on the need to be bold and fearless, “There is no prize for making an incremental change when we are thinking of a societal scale. On the ground, action can feel very rewarding. We have gone there and solved a problem, which can make us think that we have succeeded. But if we ask ourselves if we are operating at a unit of change that is scalable, we might get a different answer,” said Viraj Tyagi who acknowledged that in these situations, even knowing that one has failed is a success.

In the development sector, failure becomes a rite of passage that helps us understand the question better, and where we realise if a problem is worth solving or not. We try some things and through those efforts learn what we didn’t know, that some things were not worth addressing and other things have opened up that were more important. These are the successes in failures that we need to look out for. During her session, Vyjanthi Mala observed, “When we are working at systemic change, our problem is water but our answer is probably not in water. It’s in so many things. When we are trying to connect the dots the temptation is to do some water-related action and that is defeating the very idea of scale. It is a tightrope walk. The temptation for me to be happy is that I need to see five happy faces. But doesn’t this need for instant gratification distract you from the scale? All of us go through that in different ways, and it is a struggle.”

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SELCO Foundation

SELCO Foundation seeks to inspire and implement solutions that alleviate poverty by improving access to sustainable energy to underserved communities.