Now, that’s a question that stumps most people. Some will just start rambling and you are expected to cull out what you want. Some, thankfully, are more clued in and tell you exactly what you wanted to hear.
I have usually found that it is helpful to guide the conversation by mentioning various components of the project/programme and then asking what worked and what didn’t. What were the facilitating and inhibiting/restraining factors? Were there any developments (village – national level) that affected work and how did they deal with it? How would they rate the involvement of the key participants and other stakeholders? If they were given a choice, what would they do differently? What were the consequences/effects ranging from personal to other levels?
In fact, I think that there is a lot of value in consolidating such queries into a check list. This check list can be used periodically at team meetings to generate learnings. The responses can guide subsequent planning. This would help organisational knowledge building. And yes, we could put the answers in the donor reports as well!
I ask questions. A lot of them. I have to as I need the answers to trace project/programme histories and distil learnings and challenges. But if there is one question that is usually met with uncomfortable silence …this is it!
Suddenly, people who were happily sharing examples of success fall silent. Some fidget. Some look elsewhere. Some keep looking at you and smiling. I usually have to start talking at this stage. ‘You couldn’t have possibly succeeded on all counts. There must have been some challenging aspects, aspects where you could not make much headway despite your best efforts.’ People know what I am talking about. If there are different levels of staffs in the room, then the ones lower on the hierarchy look expectedly at their seniors. It is easy to understand that look – that look which says ‘Shall we tell her?’
Sometimes, I start getting answers at this stage. If I have managed to win some goodwill and trust, that makes it easier. If not, I move to argument two. ‘You know our donors and others have also worked in this sector. They know it is not possible for everything to go perfectly. In fact, it is much better to highlight our own failures and show that we have learnt from them. That makes our report authentic, more balanced and interesting.’ Then the conversation picks up.
Somehow, we feel that we cannot show that we have failed. It means that we did not do our job. It will hurt organisational credibility… So, many staffs and organisations just want to gloss over any inconsistencies, anything that they think will show them in bad light. But that is part of the story too. A very important part.
So, what have I learnt? Sometimes, it is easier to first talk about areas of improvement and then determine which aspects were an absolute no show and to ALWAYS focus the conversation on learnings. Interestingly, a friend once commented – You development people don’t really fail, do you? Even if a project fails, you will say that we learnt it couldn’t be done like that!!!