Start a mistakes log

mistakes“No one is exempt from the rule that learning occurs through recognition of error.” Alexander Lowen, Bioenergetics

There’s too many lessons we’re missing out on because of our tendency to only publish good results. It’s perfectly understandable to want to promote wins, but publishing mistakes and what’s been learned from the them may be even more valuable.

Ben Goldacre is crusading against publication bias in evidence based medicine. He is one of the forces behind http://www.alltrials.net/, an online petition to get all medical trials registered and subsequently all results reported. This is important stuff.

But apart from medicine, those of us involved in designing and delivering social programmes continue to repeat the mistakes of the past, because we simply don’t know enough about what has happened. I’m a strong believer in evidence-based policy, but evidence of policy history and why things failed is rarely captured and shared. Might it be possible for us to value mistakes enough to create incentives for their publication?

Curt Rosengren writes in his blog, the genius of mistakes:

You might even try keeping a mistake genius journal. Not a place for you to berate yourself for how many mistakes you make, but a place for you to actively learn from what has happened. Explore the mistake, explore what insights you’ve gained as a result, and summarize those insights into key points.

One organisation that’s created a ‘mistakes genius journal’ is Givewell in the US, with a section on their website, Our Shortcomings, logging their mistakes and what they’ve done in response. My opinion of the organisation was heightened by this discovery and I thought that this honest recognition and promotion of continuous improvement might have had the opposite effect most would expect from publishing their mistakes. Yes, we’re all worried about tabloid headlines, but wouldn’t it be a little less exciting when it’s not a secret ‘uncovered’, but a quote from the source straight off their public website. Imagine how wonderful it would be if governments and service providers kept similar logs!

As we try to design new services and financial products to address entrenched problems in this emerging social investment market, it would be really valuable to know what didn’t work out for others and most importantly, what they changed in response.

Allia recently showed an exemplary commitment to learning following the closure of their Future for Children Bond, which was the first opportunity for retail investors to invest a proportion of funds in a social impact bond, but failed to raise sufficient capital.

As a first pilot product, the Future for Children Bond has nevertheless been hugely valuable in assessing the retail market for social investment and generating learning about the steps needed to enable it to grow. These lessons will be used to inform the development of future Allia products and will be shared with the sector, together with policy recommendations, in a report by NPC to be published in May.

So here’s to seeing a whole lot more mistakes logs and lessons learned appearing in the public domain – great PR and enhanced social impact – what is there not to like?

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