Thursday, May 22, 2014

Leveraging the lessons of failure into one more attempt at success

Part of the challenge with human-system problems is that they are dynamic. Not only are the systems non-linear, chaotic, variable and have hidden feedback mechanisms, they are also dynamic. Whatever the problem is that you set out to solve, it will evolve as you are solving it. In other words the target is not only moving but changing as you proceed. That makes success both hard to measure and often hard to see.

There is an interesting commentary on economic development and the necessity for diversity in approaches to economic development in Why Jeffrey Sachs Matters by Bill Gates.

In the comments, there is also a response from Jeffrey Sachs which illustrates that one of the other challenges of human-system problems is that they involve, well, humans. The motives and values and behaviors and decision-making processes of principals, agents and subjects are a kaleidoscope of changing interactions. Gates points out that Sachs' personality is part of the whole equation and Sachs then proves that true in the comments.

Sachs has sponsored an intense development model,
Millennium Villages Project (MVP) – a $120 million demonstration project intended to show the world that it’s possible to lift African villages out of poverty through a massive infusion of targeted assistance.
As with virtually all such efforts to radically change human systems, there have been some successes, some failures, much learned, and many unanticipated outcomes. It is hard to see whether on balance the experiment has been successful by its own lights and in terms of the consumption of resources versus anticipated future productivity.

Sachs did come to the foundation, asking us to support the Millennium Villages. His pitch was intriguing. He was picking a small handful of villages to be the focus of intense interventions in health, education, and agriculture – all at once. His hypothesis was that these interventions would be so synergistic that they would start a virtuous upward cycle and lift the villages out of poverty for good. He felt that if you focus just on fertilizer without also addressing health, or if you just go in and provide vaccinations without doing anything to help improve education, then progress won’t be sustained without an endless supply of aid.

My colleagues and I had a number of concerns about Sachs’s approach. We questioned his assumptions about how quickly the gains would materialize, what would happen when the MVP funding was phased out, how much governments would contribute to offset the high per-person costs, and how feasible it was to measure progress (given the likelihood that people from the surrounding area would stream into their villages once the MVP aid started flowing). So we decided not to invest in the MVP directly. Instead we funded his interdisciplinary work at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, because we felt it was invaluable to have him focused on the needs of poor countries.
Human-systems are hard. I read this article in the context of a focus on helping children becoming enthusiastic and effective readers. The trials and tribulations are not dissimilar to economic development. It is a human-system problem not amenable to quick or easy solutions. Most efforts will fail. The important thing is to learn from that failure. Just as in economic development, there is a peculiar paradox that frequently militates against learning lessons.

The paradox is that these issues are difficult and that action in pursuit of change requires a Lady Macbeth steeliness.
Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady Macbeth: We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.
Warrior Thane that he is, Macbeth is, in his ladies' words,
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would, ”
Like the poor cat i' th' adage?
Like Lady Macbeth, when trying to affect positive change in human-systems, you have to screw your courage to the sticking place, knowing that there will be failure and unintended consequences, ridicule and criticism. But once at the sticking place, the courage that makes it possible to effect change, too often also blinds you to alternative lessons, different approaches or contrasting interpretations.

There are few who can both cast their all into a contest and yet simultaneously maintain a Marcus Aurelius like dispassion and openness to new or different information.

I like the message of Gates' article, consonant with Megan McArdle's in her The Up Side of Down. Failure is inherent to the human-system to a much greater extent than we acknowledge. We paint a picture of success leading inexorably to success when in fact success often eventually leads to success but we choose to ignore all the detours, set-backs, blind alley's and other diversions we take along the way. Pick virtually any endeavor and you will find 80-90% of the outcomes fail to meet the predetermined measure of success. The fact that we can claim success because we change the goal posts or because we were rescued serendipitously though exogenous events or because we were close enough is our happy way of ignoring just how poor are our powers of forecasting and how weak is our control over events.

The challenge is not a high failure rate. That is the nature of the beast. The problem is to fail intelligently - 1) Recognizing and acknowledging failure, 2) Anticipating and mitigating failure, 3) Learning from failure, and 4) Leveraging the lessons of failure into one more attempt at success.

No comments:

Post a Comment