Opinion: Want to improve development outcomes? Anticipate the failures. Here’s how. by Susan Davis, Devex, February 12, 2018.
We’ve all been in this meeting — you know the one — where knowledgeable people have concerns but are reluctant to express reservations about a project. So plans march forward, while those who might have valuable insights keep quiet. The result for the global health and development sector is that far too many projects fail. There is a better way. So if you take away just one message today, let it be this: “Imagining that an event has already occurred increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent.”
The better way is called a “pre-mortem” — a strategy in which a team imagines that a project has failed, and then works backward to determine what potentially lead to the failure. Like a medical post-mortem, you figure out why the patient died so you save future patients by not repeating the same mistakes. You do it in advance in a way that safely provides space for stakeholders, experts, and dissenters to share concerns, improve chances for success, and not kill the proverbial patient. And unlike a post-mortem, which is often completed and then sent to the morgue so-to-speak, pre-mortems live on.
Pre-mortems have been used for years in the business world, but infrequently in the global health and development sectors where they could make a world of difference, not just to prevent costly mistakes and risks of failure, but also to reduce risks to the communities we serve and the sustained outcomes after a project that we need.
Case in point are water, sanitation and hygiene projects that are filled with good intentions — and broken handles and rusty pumps. Because access to safe water is so fundamental to health and development, WASH projects have typically focused on immediate needs — let’s get that well built quickly — and underemphasized the long-term needs — like who’s going to maintain the well and its pump, who’s going to pay for replacement parts, and are those parts going to be available?
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