How to Fail in Mobiles for Development: MobileActive's Definitive Guide to Failure

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Apr 14, 2010

As we here at have been covering ICT and mobiles for development now for more than five years, we have seen our fair share of failures. For every great project that changes how a community benefits from technology to improve the lives of its people, there seem to be twice as many projects that fail, and end up wasting time, money, and maybe worst, goodwill.

Too often in our field, we talk up our successes, overhype and overestimate the value of our projects, and sweep the failures under the rug. But, if we don’t talk about what didn’t work (and, perhaps more importantly, why it didn’t work), others will keep repeating the same mistakes.

That is why we invented FailFaire, a gathering that is happening tonight in New York City and that we hope will take place in other cities around the world.  FailFaire is a place where it's ok to talk about what didn't work to learn from for the next project using mobiles for social change and development.

Of course, there are different kinds of failure – some projects meet their basic objectives but are too expensive or unsustainable in the long run, some projects don’t fulfill their original mission but succeed in other (and sometimes surprising ways) ways, while some projects are just a flaming ball of fail. In the spirit of Hidin’s Top 10 Failure Points in Information System Implementation, we present here a sure way to fail in M4D:’s Guide to Failure.

If you follow each of the headlines, you are sure to fail. If you read on below each invective, however, we point out ways to avoid utter failure. It's not a recipe for success but may decrease the probability of failure and increasing the likelihood of helping people to have more free, healthy, prosperous, and dignified lives.

1. Don't Clearly State the Project Objectives

It’s great to dream big, but vague objectives are nobody’s friend. How can you quantify something like “Change how people use technology?” When you first start to outline how you want your project to be developed and implemented, think about what you actually want to accomplish  - and no,“Changing minds and hearts” doesn’t count. Be firm and clear. For example, if the projects wants to increase women’s literacy with SMS lessons, there need to be measurable goals forhow many women are participating, their literacy levels before the project, and after - in short, what measurable and quantifiable results you want to see by the end. Once you know what the goals are, it will be easier to create a plan that helps you achieve it. Which brings us to point number two:

2. Don't Plan Ahead

Good projects can take months of advance planning before they’re ready to be launched. Glomming on to an idea and trying to rush the planning stage can lead to poorly designed technology, lack of stakeholder input that you're trying to reach, and unachievable goals. It's better to take time to make sure everything is designed to incerase the probability of actually accomplishing the goals of the project.  Even if things go wrong along the way, having a plan can help you minimize the fallout and salvage the project.


3. Go It Alone

Strong relationships with the beneficiaries, users, and partners can be the difference between a project that succeeds and one that doesn't. While you may think that your idea is so great that it doesn’t need support, the reality is that working with those who you are trying to reach is a must. Most mobile projects will also need the buy-in from the mobile carriers so find partners in the telecommunications industry, look to local schools and universities for developers that are local, partner with community leaders to make sure your project is taken seriously and meets the needs of the area, and look for other developers or NGOs who have either released similar projects or worked in the area to find out what you can learn from past programs. Ignoring others is a guaranteed way to make your project unpopular, and without supporters your project is likely to die a quick death.

4. Don't Adjust/Don't Compromise

You have a vision for your project. So it’s understandable that when you realize it’s not going according to plan, your first instinct may be to cling to the project’s original plan despite bumps in the road. But ignoring small problems can lead to bigger problems and all-out failure. Adjusting along the way also proves that your approach and product is flexible – which is important for long-term sustainability. Needs and technologies change, and trying to force your project into relevance once it’s clear that something is wrong isn’t going to make it magically work. Use these minor setbacks to improve upon your original idea.

5. Ignore The Community

Presumably you’re launching your ICT4D or M4D project with the ultimate goal of improving others’ quality of life. So why ignore them? Many well-meaning projects are initiated by donors and NGOs, often not from within a community (though there are certainly exceptions!) Understanding the needs and dynamics of the people in the community before you start throwing money and technology into the mix is a must. In fact, a lot of the work we do is about people, community organizing, and understanding what drives them. We’ve read about plenty of projects that didn't take communities' dynamics into account, threw technology at them (A la: Build it and they will come). Needsless to say, a lot of the projects do not exist anymore.

For example, in one project, a group of high school girls were given cell phones with embedded learning games in order to increase their math aptitude. Although the girls used the games, the project had a surprising secondary effect – at the end of the program, many of the girls said they felt less connected to their friends. Researchers realized (after the fact) that giving a select group of teenage girls in a high school a fancy phone had the unintended effect of creating an atmosphere of jealousy.

We’ve heard of other projects that tried to send personal HIV/AIDS test results to people over their mobile phones; they were surprised by the low pick-up rate until they realized that many people in the community share their mobiles with family and friends. A text message isn’t personal when multiple people share one phone.

Speak with the people who will be using your product, and be sure to engage with questions. Dig deep; ask about the community and family dynamics in the region you're launching the project, ask participants how they anticipate using the product, ask what they want to get out of being involved, ask if they anticipate any problems and why. Working in and with the people and community in which you wish to launch your project is the best way to anticipate potential barriers.

6. Don't Scale Your Rollout

Your dream may be to create an application that changes the way teachers use technology in the classroom across an entire country, but if the infrastructure can’t support the technology and the schools can’t afford the necessary equipment and upkeep, your grand plan will fail. While we have our issues with the many pilots in this field (that often go nowhere after their pilot phase) it is wise to start small and slowly scale the plan as it proves its usefulness and so long as it is, in some way, sustainable. Carefully researching a pilot project with the right level of support (strong infrastructure, funding, community interest) is one way to go. Understanding how rolling out on a larger scale, however, should not be forgotten.  Small may be beautiful in some instances, but societal impact in this field may hinge on larger-scale projects. But, at least if you start small, if your project doesn't work, you found out early on. 

7. Ignore Critics

If people on the ground start telling you that the project isn’t working, or doesn't meet the needs of the community – listen to them! Creating an open dialogue is a key to success. It may sting your pride, but no one is an expert in everything; other people may know more about which technology is best-suited for the region, or about local customs that need to be accounted for, or may just see a glaring error that you overlooked. Learning how to take advice and listen to others can make you and your organization better. Blindly continuing on with your projects while discounting the voices of others is at best a recipe for making you and your organization unliked, and at worst a recipe for failure. 

8. Burn Your Budget 

If you haven't set clear objectives or planned ahead, then it's likely that your budget is a joke. One of the surest signs of a failed project is one that wasted its resources; to create a truly useful, sustainable project it needs to be affordable and have a plan on how to financially live in the future. If your project only worked because you threw buckets of cash at it that won't last, and it can't be repeated anywhere else. Or, if you burn through your budget and find yourself financially depleted four months into an eight-month pilot, you're out of luck unless you can quickly raise some serious money. To avoid budget setbacks, think about what you need to make the project work. Account for even small things; little things like airtime incentives so popular in many projects can add up.

9. Burn Bridges

Jumping through bureaucratic hoops necessary for implementing a project may make you want to tear out your hair. Maybe you have to go through an assistant’s assistant before you’re even allowed to contact the official you actually need to talk to. Or maybe you accidently offended someone (shouldn’t have ignored the local community!) and now find yourself blacklisted. Even if you’ve been unfairly treated by the people in power, whining won’t help. Complaining to everyone you meet about how you were screwed over won’t endear you to others – although sometimes they’ll commiserate with a similar tale of woe, creating a feud does nothing to encourage conversation or change. Similarly, if you find things going wrong in your project, don’t just pull out and leave the people involved high and dry; they’ll remember your shoddy treatment and it will make it harder for you if you want to come back in the future, or for other groups who may want to work in the area to be taken seriously. 

10. Don't Plan For The End

Pilots stop. Funding runs out. Projects end. Not planning for the end, however, can leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. If you only have enough funding for a six-month pilot, then plan accordingly to get the most out of that time. Make sure that all the parties involved are prepared for what might happen when it draws to its natural conclusion. If you've spent time and money training community health workers how to use mobiles to manage a database of patients, ensure there is lcoal supprot and continuity as part of the project.  Plan ahead (wich we already mentioned). You can't anticipate everything, but having a general idea of how to conclude the project in everyone's best interests is the best way to make sure that your project has impact even after you're gone.

Avoiding Failure

We are sure there are many more (we never mentioned proprietary tech platforms here, for example....)  so the definitive guide to failure may be indefinite for now with more to come. We do hear of a number of poor practices coming up over and over again, though. Insufficient planning, a lack of strong local and partner relationships, and not understanding people and community needs are sure ways to make your project fail. Sometimes even meticulously planned and researched projects don't work out due to unforeseen circumstances, but in general, failure can be mitigated. And if not, we invite you to the next FailFaire to tell all about the flaming FAIL! 

Image courtesy Flickr user Jez Page

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