A conversation on Failing Forward between Walter Mwasaa, Chief of Party, SHOUHARDO III, CARE Bangladesh and Colleen Farrell, Technical Advisor, Knowledge Management & Communications, Food and Water Systems, CARE USA
About the conversation: Failure without learning is final. Otherwise, it’s just part of the process. Walter Mwasaa from CARE’s SHOUHARDO III talks about how cutting-edge work with youth highlighted gaps in our success metrics and how we hear feedback. Cultivating the art of listening, building acceptance of failure into our culture, and understanding that failure is everywhere are his key takeaways. It’s in the smallest details–embrace when people are late, and see how that translates to new ideas.
Colleen: Hi everyone. This is Colleen with Food and Nutrition Security team. It’s CARE USA and I have joining me today Walter who is Chief of Party for SHOUHARDO program in Dhaka Bangladesh. Hi Walter.
Walter: Hi Colleen.
Colleen: Let’s get started. Would you be able to provide a little bit of context for the failure that we’re going to be talking about today?
Walter: SHOUHARDO kind of brand which has been largely a very successful program for both CARE and USAID Food for Peace since 2004. We as a programmer been able to become a testing ground, but an opportunity to showcase some of the really compelling ideas that work for not just anybody but especially for CARE women who through the work we’ve done with each other in the past. We’ve been able to bring out compelling evidence about how women empowerment is a big determinant of stunting outcomes for children and also being able to look for evidence or knowledge around how to deal resilience for women in the face of shocks like we have in Bangladesh.
So that’s SHOUHARDO. In this start deterioration there’s quite a number of exciting things that we are doing. And one of those would be the youth work. that was introduced right after the program kicked off. It wasn’t in the original proposal but we were able to do a quick analysis and acknowledge how much we do not have a clear way to reach that youth and especially the rural poor youth, both boys and girls just because the program initially did not that set of activities. So we negotiated with USAID and they allowed us to bring on a component for youth programming.
And that’s what we’re going to be talking about. Our journey with that. So the youth component came on and we were able to develop through two activities. One way able to market assessment and look at our opportunities there were. And look at how the youth specifically that rural poor will connect with those specific opportunities. So kind of equal to the demand and the supply side of both employments but also self and wage employment. Why would you develop a strategy which the team was quite clear and I think we were all excited that we’ve got a consultant to come in and do this and then had a CARE U.S. education team support us with developing the strategy.
And so we rolled it out: hire staff, put in resources, budgets, activities for it and we all excited about doing all this youth work. It’s cutting edge development and you end all currently.
We are right on our good journey. Until I would say probably two or three months down the implementation. We kind of began hearing concerns by our partners in our field based teams that there is not enough youth, we can’t find the youth to do the… to join the program. And that was a little confusing because with a population of about 45 percent youth to use 0 to 24 years of age being young people in this country. Why would you not find youth in their households like the villages that you are working on. Through all persuasion we kept the team engaged and would ask you know what approaches are we using in how we try to reach to these people. And so sounded like it was more of an understanding. And every time we would resolve an issue and we’d hope that fixes it. So we would get into conversations with a field based staff. Often times the conversations would end up with. Okay fine why don’t you try this approach. So we knew that you are lagging behind in terms of percentages. We were looking at teaching about 10,000 youth but two years in we only had sum 1,400. And so it wasn’t making sense. We are offering training opportunities for employment. When I go to the villages and other staff don’t come back. Yes, youth are very excited. People want to do this with us. It wasn’t until the midterm that we began to fully understand what exactly was going on.
It was very clear from the findings by consultants and but enough of what we were seeing that this strategy was one of the great tests that they had seen. What was also clear that it wasn’t being done. And the reason it wasn’t being done is because we had four components in the strategy so we had a vocational training component where youth would go to the training centers from the Department of Youth Development in Bangladesh and in those departments all kinds of institutions they would be receiving training on areas like electric wiring, mason bee and all that. very well clear and set out.
And this was I would say the most expensive part of the training. The other component was apprenticeships and internships that was being done in villages and the youth would identify trained that I would be interested in so they’d go and we would support them to find a potential employer work with them an agreement they’ll spend time learning on how to do that.
The other component was supporting the youth either from the trainings or those who had some skills to develop their own businesses. Really supporting people to become self-employed. The last component was developing training modules for youth are able to travel to different locations and mostly this would be for the younger girls because mobility is an issue in Bangladesh. Often women don’t get to go so far away from their villages and so the activities we did with this particular group was to define local service training modules that they would learn skills like what they really got men for their own self-employment but things like tailoring and really add value to them being competitive in whatever they pick up on.
To no surprise the most expensive got the most attention. The reason you are not able to find 10,000 views is our partners are very much focused on identifying young men and women that are willing to go to district training centers. Women would struggle to leave their homes. Young man who was setting up families or just of schools maybe not qualified for colleges were unable to see where they would leave their villages and go and spend six months. You know learning something but there was no job guarantee. How they looked at it was I’m living my farm or my parents farm or I’m leaving my family, my girl and I’m not sure where I’m going. And it’s a difficult place. The reality was that target for these vocational training was more or less about 25 percent. So 2,500 would be their like over activity target. But that’s where all the efforts allowed. So all efforts were being put into generating that particular number to get everyone going into colleges. People didn’t go to the colleges neither was in apprenticeships and neither was any localized training is being developed. Because we couldn’t find the two thousand five hundred. So everything was focused on that 2,500.
Colleen: How would you say you and the team moved past this implementation failure that was identified in this midterm evaluation report?
Walter: Obviously midterm evaluation that tells you that you have a great strategy but does it mean that wasn’t implemented is not one of the best things in my position and if you’re in development work that you know what you need to do you have it and you’re not doing it.
So it was really a wakeup call for us that we in principle had to go back to the communities fast to figure out is there really absence of youth and then saw quickly no. Of course these enough youths in the villages. And so why are there in these… It turned out that the biggest issue for our partners was they kind of focused on their heavy budget items because that would more the expenditures faster. And also because it was they had that thing to do. That’s where all the efforts went. And so what we decided to do is go back and kind of retraining the partners and our own staff and reorient the communities again on this particular component was just part of it and why it had broken we believe was two things one obviously the focus of the heavy budget items but we also realized soon that we did not necessarily have the manpower or womanpower human resource to be able to push through with this kind of activity which was new to the program.
It may have been great and you know cutting edge but it’s new. It was kind of a little difficult for people to leave their traditional roles and give this the same effort and focus so we did have to recruit a Senior Technical Coordinator to lead the risk and have point specific staff within the partners who would to take that responsibility. And I mean I will say we picked up a hundred percent but there’s definitely a lot going on in different shapes in the localized training and some of the other work that had totally due it’s not taken off at all.
Colleen: If you can do this differently? what is one or two clear actions that you would change?
Walter: One of the big things for me and it’s alarming that we’ve had as we reflect on the many failures we have in SHOUHARDO. I have to say we have many failures. I’m sure people are excited about this program but we do fail and we do fail a lot. We do acknowledge two things that sometimes just because of the pressure to do work it’s easy to not listen to what’s coming up that change. So the whole feedback conversation right from the top down to the lowest level of implementation.
So a Project Manager who would receive my phone call would be asked what’s going on in the numbers is conversation with a lower level and this is partner staff would likely be pushing them to achieve their target. But that phone call has not had what that guy has done so in principle everyone was struggling but we didn’t realize we were struggling on just one strength and nobody was focusing on the other three. And so it just because the communication was one way without the reflections on what’s missing we definitely ended up not getting clear feedback, yes you are struggling but you are struggling with 25 percent of what you could be doing is to a whole 75 percent that’s ready and waiting but nobody’s given their attention. It took that process of figuring out how to hear more from the ground forwards and bring that into the conversations. Because in that we will figure out okay, yes it’s broken but it’s broken in this area and is what you need to fix as opposed to seeing well as a broken system.
Colleen: that’s a really great example. Expanding on that a little more if you can recommend one action to other CARE colleagues projects even partner organizations or government based on this experience. What would you have to say to them?
Walter: When you have communication that seems to be more directive even though it’s a question. It’s very likely that the responses come to seek a certain desired goal or result. The one thing that we are really learning and working on is figuring out what’s a culture that we create that enables people to speak to even things that are not necessarily being requested and be able to identify those gaps. So at a program level we increasingly definitely have been repeated conversations on failing forward. Every big significant stuff conversation includes a session where we identify a gap and ask stuff to reflect on why they feel that we don’t speak a lot about way or areas that we have not have been optimal success or progress in the things that we do. And those conversations open as up to a number of things that I think just highlight a few that come off the top of my head. I mean we have reports that we can share. But one of the things that I think has really come up is just the culture that we are so cultured to not admit that we failed. So if for example I didn’t make it to the office on time it’s very easy to talk about traffic which I know traffic is in the streets every single day. And so I’ll blame traffic but traffic is always there. So how about I didn’t wake up one time? So at the end of the day we’re kind of trying to create an ownership where something doesn’t work and as opposed to seeing the other side of the problem we kind of like to push it outside ourselves. It’s not because we don’t meet these affiliates because it’s almost like a cutthroat competition away. I need to perform because there’s thousands of other people that are almost waiting in line for this job. So there’s a pressure to perform and that pressure creates a sense of failure weakens that position. Doesn’t give me the space to grow and to be maybe promoted or get an opportunity. And so we’ve kind of won to find ways to tuck away failure. We use this processes to really say okay fine so this is what why we cannot talk about it. What would be some of the ways within teens as an individual we can support each other to acknowledge failure. And one of the most interesting moments has been to find that way of rewarded failure and failure not because somebody failed but because somebody was brave enough to define a sudden failure. That helps mold a certain concept or process forward a little more precisely and that involves admitting the part that they felt and so using that as a method where we create that opportunity for sharing those and not feeling that this is a bad thing for me to talk about because the cost of not doing it means that we just keep repeating the same thing. We know it’s not optimal. Chances are I have an idea how I can do it better but if I’m going to say that it would have worked better if I did then maybe another person would also fill in another piece and sooner than later we can begin to see again going back to my youth exam. Well that partners felt that pressure to spend and burn their budgets their field stuff felt that pressure to do what their managers wanted them to achieve which is burn budgets, burn rates. Well we did in CARE what you are looking for is numbers percentages of targets reaching as many youths so you can already see a disconnect and so we had the conversation about well we not burn in money because they’re kind of training we can do now are not the ones that are burn in the money. That would change that dynamic quickly from the other side we are seeing a lack of progress. So the two are not necessarily the same thing but just because we are not bringing the gaps or the failures or the issues together then we just have the situation we don’t want. It sounds to us like it’s more of a jigsaw that has different players who are to acknowledge where they are weaknesses and putting that together would really help move us forward.
Colleen: Absolutely I couldn’t agree more. You spoke to embracing these failures to really enhance our culture and the success of our programs. And I’m wondering if you have any comments or words of wisdom on how we can really use the lessons from this failure in particular generally how we can use that to improve our impact?
Walter: I gave an example which is about of project output. I think one of the things that we also embracing in our work is accepting that there is just not one alternative and so one of the things that’s not embracing failure or most of the times you know that people have achieved more. And you know that we could have talked about this. Maybe it was how a work was scheduled maybe it was that location could have been done better. So you can have those conversations what it creates for us is a momentum of exploring alternatives and acknowledging that some of them may be risky. But if you know what you’re trying to achieve and there is certain culture that accepts that. Then it’s obviously very likely that we will begin to see more ideas without the challenge of any new idea is likely to be faced with opposition not even because it failed but people are so concerned about the failure points that, they will not even see their opportunity points within the same idea. And so we don’t take risks. We do not calculate those risks and say well I may lose two thousand dollars. Yeah but if it works that’s going to be in terms of return on investment potentially to hundred thousand for the community or something. I would say it’s always that tension. And as a manager or as anybody doing any investments. You kind of want to figure out what’s a logical way of doing this that doesn’t jeopardize your donor relations or with governmental, with community and create that space because it’s in everything it’s in how we do things it’s how we structure our workplaces it’s how we write proposals it’s how we even hold a community meeting. So I think we need to create a sense of appetite for risk.
Colleen: Final comments are thoughts that you wanted to share.
Walter: I’ve been following the whole failing forward conversations on the workplace and some of the things that kind of get generated in the industry. And I would say it’s really time that people have… I feel that we are all in the momentum where it’s been acknowledged. What I feel that we don’t necessarily do and we’ve been trying to figure out how do you make this actual in the workplace because these always that risk of talking about it like I just have. But I would imagine staff full potential that came up and said You know I failed in this area because of the senses are the first reaction is entry lead to say well great job thank you for failing. You know it’s likely to be pushing back and say you know we needed to see you be a bit more proactive. So creating that space which really starts right from the top of the unit or an organization or a project is a real challenge for us and to be meaningful in these conversations. It’ll start with somebody being late and we say that’s failing without landing is fine. But if you’ll fail in bringing anything out of it figuring out tomorrow you need to do these or I need to leave earlier I need to avoid this kind of busses because they always get stuck.
You know that’s a process. And so if someone comes and says Well I’m late but I’m late for this reason I tried this. I mean that’s something that we should have embraced and it’s only then that that would translate to ideas in the workplace in the field with our participants on the projects as opposed to seeing this as somebody who is perpetually late and we generate that kind of appetite for failure who learn our thousand attempts to get that light bulb glow in and I think that’s what we really need to ask ourselves.
Colleen: You know I think that’s a really great call and thank you for that.