This blog was written by Zehra Rizvi and Cecile Cherrier.


“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein). Experimentation and innovation are required to advance social protection for all, but this involves failing. Where is the space for failures and how do we embrace this?

Have we failed? Yes, because we haven’t failed enough.

In a rapidly changing world, innovation will be key to successfully deliver social protection for all. The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the need to innovate to rapidly expand social protection to often hard-to-reach populations hit by the socio-economic crisis. In complex, uncertain, resource-scare contexts, doing things differently is a MUST. This requires creativity, adaptability, risk taking, and… perseverance, for there will be failures along the way. But if we could have the courage and strength to shake off the failure and give it another go, we would open the door to new possibilities.

As individual members of the Online Community on Social Protection in Crisis Contexts, we gathered to question our individual and collective ability to fail forward. The premise of the event was to bring failure and learning to the forefront of the debate. Everyone says, let’s talk about failures! But VERY FEW want to actually come forward to do so. We are afraid to do so. But at the same time, we know that we learn most from our failures. So where does that lead us?

This blog offers a reflection on a few critical points when it comes to doing things differently, learning from our failures, and enhancing our individual and collective ability to fail forward.


On doing things differently

Understand national governments’ perspectives. The expansion of social protection in crisis contexts cannot simply be limited to the provision of emergency cash transfers. The end goal here is to expand social protection for vulnerable populations living in crisis-prone areas in a reliable and sustainable manner. This cannot happen without the national governments, which are the final duty-bearers[1]. If the ownership and buy in is not there from the government side, no amount of planning or programming, how innovate it may be, will flourish – nor will it flourish if the social protection agenda is being pulled in different directions by donors. Development partners may be coming in with their own agendas, but this needs to be second to government priorities. Having empathy and being able to see a situation from ‘both’ sides is key in being able to understand the problem one is trying to solve. Experiences from different countries showed how understanding governments’ perspective and being aware of expected outcomes are key aspects in moving programmes forward. The massive COVID-related social protection expansion has been innovation at its finest. It’s been a myth buster that governments move slow and will not innovate. We have seen some incredible innovations from governments and other actors on registrations, payment systems, and ways of delivery.


Promote participatory, people-centred approaches. Working on the expansion of social protection in crisis contexts requires the involvement of a variety of actors bringing in different perspectives—across the humanitarian-development (-peace/environment) nexus, from different sectors (food, health, education, human rights, social care/protection, etc.). It requires a holistic and people-centred approach. Building on the Building State Capability work, the TRANSFORM initiative works, for instance, with concepts of authority, ability, acceptability of any given social protection option—that is, being transparent about all the possible barriers to social protection expansion. The ILO Assessment Based National Dialogue provides an effective framework for a participatory approach in developing nationally owned social protection systems. In armed conflict settings, the government might not be a feasible entry point, at least in the short term; development partners need to investigate what people need in ‘no-go-areas’ and how to supply it in a predictable way, without doing harm (protection principles).


Pilot vs. prototype vs. roll out. Doing things differently implies trying out new things. Does that call for more pilots? The word “pilot” has become a dirty word in the social protection sector—too many pilot projects never got scaled up, due to a lack of national ownership, or because they did not test a scalable model! It seems better to learn from mistakes made while implementing at scale, rather than from pilots. Sometimes research such as impact evaluations like randomized controlled trials attached to pilots can kill innovation. While a pilot aims at testing a model to (hopefully) show that it works, a prototype aims at developing and refining an idea that is not yet fully mature. But innovating, or prototyping, at scale in a social context might have major consequences. What matters is the capacity to work through successive iterations; it’s the ability to have short feedback loops, and adjust quickly. Having things rolled out this way allows for more flexibility and creativity; policy options can be created from that.


On what it takes to fail forward


Invest in individual learning journeys. If we look at learning from the perspective of individual, organizational, sector/community wide, it becomes clear that learning is taking place on an individual level and is an individual responsibility. The key question is how and if this can be mainstreamed within an organization or the sector. Unless we do talk about and normalize the idea of failing or lessons learned, this will not happen. Some key recommendations are: making learning a part of everyone’s job description and responsibility; engaging early and intensively in setting up learning processes; ensuring senior management buy-in/ organizational culture; and iterating and adapting learning mechanisms. Without individual transformation, the sector can’t transform itself.


Normalise the idea of failure. This is a tough one as no one wants to talk about failure; agencies have donors to be accountable for, and governments have an even tougher challenge when using public funds and being accountable to citizens. The role of donors can be very powerful in encouraging open discussions - if there is no punishment attached to organizations sharing their failures, this might come up more openly. When writing up case studies on COVID responses, for instance, let’s also document the failures and decisions that were taken and then dropped and for what reasons–the SPACE offers a full list of questions you may want to be answering as a template to adapt and build on (see section 3.2.3 on process).


Apply lessons learned. As one participant put it: “One of the biggest mistakes we make with ‘learning’ is failing to do something with what we learn.” An easy way to fix this is committing to getting back to those who provided feedback with a roadmap of how those lessons will be applied, which increases accountability and transparency. The response to a given crisis might be over, and there is no chance to reiterate and adjust; therefore, learning from an operation and across settings is essential to get better at applying lessons learned.


Document to share. The importance of documenting to create accountability and transparency but more importantly the ability to share information is a crucial topic. As monitoring, evaluation and learning budgets tend to be low, documentation is not prioritised systematically. Developing products that can cover a range of audiences (practitioners, senior managers, government, others), in different languages and through different mediums is an important strategy. These products can be shared and ‘stored’ in the Online Community on Social Protection in Crisis Contexts. As per usual, this requires a commitment on funding for both creation of the products and creating a repository of useful materials.


Support communities of practice. Having open spaces where people feel they can share safely and learn from each other is key. Open and constructive exchanges on lessons learned work best as part of an informal network where people can participate on an individual level (not based on their organizational affiliation). The ReflAction platform is one example of such informal network. The francophone and anglophone Communities of Practice on Cash Transfer in Africa have been an invaluable asset for government staff charged with designing national COVID responses. It has offered safe spaces for civil servants to exchange on failure, lessons learned, challenges and breakthroughs. Resourced by the World Bank and UNICEF, facilitated, face-to-face events have helped to build trusted, cooperative relationships between community members. A message is much more effective when shared by a peer, by a Minister of Social Development with another Minister of Social Development, for instance. The Online Community on Social Protection in Crisis Contexts is another space available (open to all), but this is currently not resourced and run by volunteers. Sharing insights quickly is important, so that it can be immediately useful to people working on another COVID response, for instance. The informal weekly hangout that takes place on Wednesdays offers a space for such real-time exchange.


Who owns the failures? This was a key unresolved topic and an important one if we are serious about taking the idea of failing forward, forward. Can we only talk about our own individual failures? If we are part of an organization, how can we foster both internal and external reflections? Is there the space to do so? An idea is to keep failure cases anonymous to enable sharing and learning. Also, the spirit of developing, failing and learning together works well—as encouraged, for instance, by the methodology developed by the Forecast-based Financing movement.


On what can be done to move the Fail Forward Movement… forward


Here are a few actions you can take today to support the Fail Forward Movement:


  • Safely share your stories. There is a lot to learn from cases where a social protection response to a crisis, or a humanitarian intervention linked with a national social protection system, hasn’t gone as smoothly as people might have wished. Whether you and your team have failed and managed to bounce back, or simply failed but understood why, there are valuable practical insights to be drawn. This, of course, may not be easy to share publicly. So we have launched an initiative aimed at collecting personal stories from practitioners engaged in advancing social protection in crisis contexts. You can now share your stories confidentially or even anonymously through an online survey (available in English or French).


  • Join, support or create safe spaces. We need more spaces where people are not afraid to talk about failure, and possibly how they overcome it—too often, we only talk about success to make our programmes or organizations look good to the public and donors. We need different spaces for different audiences (exchanges between peers work best); we need bridges between different confidential spaces. We invite all practitioners to join the informal weekly hangout to exchange with peers under Chatham House rules. We invite donors, organizations and individuals to join and support the Online Community on Social Protection in Crisis Contexts, and other relevant communities to ensure resources are available to facilitate discussions, curate knowledge, and organize face-to-face events, much needed to build trusted relationships conducive to knowledge exchange.


  • Use the F word! If we can manage to get individual practitioners to exchange on it, even if under the radar, to spread the word among peers, that will already be a step forward. In our daily practice, within our team, let’s ask the questions: “What didn’t go as planned? What is it telling us? How can we apply this lesson?” If the F word still look too scary to you, try the AFGO acronym: “Another Flippin’ Growth Opportunity!” If you’re comfortable with the F word, envision organizing a Fail Fest in your unit or organization—there are plenty of resources and lessons from running a fail fest. The end goal is for us to become more open about our failures, so we can disclose them, discuss them, and yes… collectively learn and grow from them.


So, do we want to be learning the lesson proactively or reactively?


“There’s never failure when you learn.”

This blog post is published as part of the activities to promote and disseminate the results and key discussions of the global e-Conference Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?’, held in October 2020. The blog summarises the key messages from the e-Conference’s Side Event on Fail forward: Building foundations for innovation. The session was moderated by Cecile Cherrier, Independent Consultant and Zehra Rizvi, Programme Specialist (HCT/SRSP) of UNICEF. This side event was run as an open and interactive session (no expert group of panelists) and many participants contributed to the conversation. You can watch the full session here. For more information about next conversations focusing on embracing failure to get better at expanding social protection in challenging contexts, please join the Online Community on Social Protection in Crisis Contexts.


[1] The discussion in the side event did not go into contexts without governments or failed states but we welcome that discussion in the online community!