A story of failure

Failure is a very sensitive topic.

As you may know I work for the charity SolarAid. Shortly after joining I was told a story about a celebrated failure.

As there were so few solar products being developed for rural Africa, SolarAid started devising its own. One of the ideas was very simple – a solar light that could fit inside a kerosene lamp. This would have a number of advantages – kerosene lamps could be adapted and families were accustomed to kerosene lamps, whereas, there was a lack of familiarity and trust with the new technology offered by solar lights. The light could also be easily hung or carried.

It’s sounds like a great idea doesn’t it? A solar light that fits inside a kerosene lamp.

Here is a picture of the solar light prototype which as you can see fits inside the kerosene lamp casing.

However the light was not a success. Why? One simple reason. The kerosene lamp is the symbol of poverty. People didn’t want to buy a solar light to fit inside a kerosene lamp. They wanted a lightbulb like the one you and I are used to, or something even better, but not one that reminds them of the kerosene lamp.

Now this failure is an important part of SolarAid’s history because it taught us something so important that it now resides at the core of who we are and what we do. Simply that we need to listen to our customers: the families and communities who we are encouraging to adopt, indeed buy, a solar light instead of kerosene (which is dangerous, expensive, bad for your health and the planet). And that is a paradigm shift – we have to treat ‘beneficaries’ as customers and indeed that is what SolarAid does. We absolutely need to listen to them.

So although the light was a failure it embedded a really important principle that has influenced SolarAid’s approach ever since. The principle I would say is priceless.

Stories of failure are actually great ways to remember and instil learning. I often use this story when I tell people about SolarAid for the first time. We even have the original kerosene lamp fitting solar lights in the office.  If we are prepared to share our story others can learn from our failure too.

We all find failure hard to accept – the temptation is to hide it away when actually it can help determine your future direction or help tell your story. So what failures does your organisation have? Dig them up! What did it learn? What’s the story? Non-profits are tackling some of the most difficult issues of all. It can’t always be a success story – in fact the struggle is what can make our causes so compelling and believable.

I’ve just started reading Adapt – Why success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford. In the introduction he writes “There are three essential steps to successfully adapting – 1. Try new things in the expectation some will fail 2. Make failure survivable , because it will be common, 3. and to make sure when you know when you have failed”. I’ll let you know how it goes. Here’s a taster from his recent TED video (I like the bit about the new style politician).

4 thoughts on “A story of failure

  1. Wow. That’s a great design story. It mirrors the famous Betty Crocker egg story. (Their instant ‘just add water’ cake mix didn’t sell until they increased the amount of work required to make it: bakers had to add an egg. Why? One theory is that 1950s women felt guilty about ‘lie’ that they made the cake.)

    Even when we look at the lamp from our own consumerist point of view – particularly when we look at it from our own point of view – our answer is the same as African lamp buyers. We would never accept a new car that saved a couple thousand pounds by inserting a new, better car into our old car body. In fact, we are more likely to do the opposite and buy a new skin to wrap around an existing purchase to ‘make it new’ again.

    The weird implication however, is that we waste a lot of resources appealing to our emotions and social status. And we increase the motivation to develop superficial ‘innovations’ that *only* appeal to emotion and social status.

    Lately I’ve become fascinated with how the mechanical watch has become luxury jewellery, at the moment of it’s utilitarian obsolescence. Note the ads the next time you go to the airport.

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