Sharing our failures and mistakes in global health and learning from them can enhance problem-solving, encourage innovation by fostering a culture that supports taking calculated risks, and improve quality by analyzing workflows and identifying areas where errors occur. Indeed, a study exploring the dynamics of failure in three very different areas—science, entrepreneurship, and terrorism—found that the individuals who failed in these areas and then went on to eventually succeed were precisely those who could identify what worked and what didn’t and adjust for what didn’t work well in subsequent attempts. That kind of learning can only happen through open and honest reflection.

For example, a donor at a recent “learning-through-failure” event told the story of one of her earliest investments in the digital health space: using a digital platform seemed like the most cost-efficient and sustainable approach to gather data from young people on the quality of services they were receiving, but audio surveys, interactive-voice response, and text messaging all failed (for a variety of reasons, from privacy concerns and lack of trust to low health literacy and language barriers). Through a series of honest conversations about these failures throughout implementation, the donor and implementing partner ultimately decided to abandon the digital platform and use a more traditional paper-and-pen option to complete the study.

Between 2022 and 2023, we hosted a series of four virtual events focused on improving through failure in collaboration with other partners, and we plan to continue hosting additional events over time. When designing the events, we built in elements to address the three key types of barriers discussed above: emotional, cognitive, and organizational.

We propose five recommendations for projects, organizations, and the global health field more broadly to mitigate the emotional, cognitive, and organizational barriers that stand in the way of sharing and learning from failures:

  1. Increase the number of forums for sharing.
  2. Pay attention to the framing.
  3. Experiment with different groupings.
  4. Make it easy for people to share.
  5. Get in the habit of sharing what works and what doesn’t.

Read the full article about global health by Ruwaida Salem, Neela A. Saldanha, Anne Ballard Sara, Elizabeth Tully and Tara M. Sullivan at Stanford Social Innovation Review.