October 18, 2013

SPARK IGNITE: Failing as an Art Form

By Susanne Kat & David Dodd

To master it,is a hard task.

During the annual Partos Plaza event – organized by the branch organization Partos for international cooperation and development organizations –three organizations participated in the Brilliant Failure Award competition, NICE International, Woord en Daad, and this year’s winner Plan Nederland. In total over sixty people voted during the day.

The Brilliant Failure Award, celebrating its 4th birthday the 10th of October, is an initiative of the ‘Institute of Brilliant Failures’ founded by Paul Iske, head of ABN-AMRO’s Dialogues House. A brilliant failure is defined as a well-prepared project with a different outcome than originally intended and from which a powerful learning is derived. The institute’s main objective is to create a safe environment in which organizations can talk about failure in a positive way, in order to encourage them to adapt to a more entrepreneurial and risk taking approach. The award was first introduced in the development sector, with support of SPARK and Partos. Two social entrepreneurs, Bas Ruysennaars and David Dodd, are responsible for new and ongoing initiatives.

It has always been important to acknowledge mistakes and failures.

Nowadays this is perhaps even more true as a fast changing environment brings with it the need for experimentation and inevitably, failure. Although awarding an organization for a failed project might still sound a bit unconventional, the past few years the development sector has embraced this initiative. Recognizing that to create a dialogue within the sector about failure, transparency, risks, entrepreneurship and learning is necessary. But despite the necessity – and the positive attitude taken towards the Award – at the end of the day only a few organizations are willing and able to come forward with a failed project. So what is happening in the sector? After talking to several organizations, it seems to be the case that it is not fear or shame (which was the main hurdle organizations had to take in the first 2 years of the Award) anymore that stands in the way of coming forward and talking about failure. It seems that the fear of participating has been replaced by insufficient ability within organizations on how to approach the search for a (brilliant) failure.

If organizations cannot exactly pinpoint what has been learned from a certain failure in a project, what stops them from making the same mistake twice?

Furthermore what is forgotten by most organizations is that the focus should not be on the brilliancy of the failure, but it should be concerning the value of the lessons that were taken from this. We need to look back at projects and see what could be learned from the decisions made and their accompanying results, to analyze them in a non-judgmental way, and embed the lessons learned in the organization so that in the future similar mistakes can be avoided. This necessitates a different mindset, one that requires looking at projects from a different angle. An angle that is different to that of the standard project manager and different to the requirements of reporting to financiers. This mindset is slowly changing, and it would seem that there is still work to do.  As Bill Gates states: “It is fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”


*Susanne Kat is a MENA Intern at SPARK Amsterdam

SPARK IGNITE is SPARK’s blog of stories, updates and opinions by SPARK staff, on relevant topics in the news, stories from the fields, andwhat inspire us to do what we do.  We welcome external contributions; to contribute please contact media[at]