Coming to Terms with Failures

A runaway success in public engagement is difficult to achieve. You’re likely not going to achieve 100 percent buy-in or remove all structural barriers to participation. Whatever process you choose may not always be accessible or available for some people, and at worst, it may alienate others. For this reason, it is even more important to measure progress towards landmarks and not be concerned with only reaching your destination. Even if you fail to get to your destination, there are always places along the way you successfully reach. Understanding this is important not only for the project you’re working on but for the potential success of all the projects that will come after yours.


This idea of landmarks builds off the study and method of systemic organizational change called “appreciative inquiry,”17 which sets out to build constructive pathways, not diagnostic results, from evaluation. In public engagement work, the only appropriate description of failure is when it describes a lack of productivity and inability to deliver. But even then, failure is rarely total or catastrophic. If a project fails to reach its destination, it likely accomplished something along the way and through important landmarks. This is why, outside of outcomes evaluation, it is important to describe landmarks in detail and to put them in the context of systemic change. And if you failed to reach a landmark or got completely off track towards your destination, then use this occurrence as an opportunity to explain what happened and how you might be able to prevent it in the future. Remember, public participation work is iterative. It’s not about the destination, but about improving and learning from the journey.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Reframe failure in terms of appreciative inquiry by considering failure as an opportunity to learn and surface useful information for future iterations. Failures should be small, cheap, and temporary. Often burnout can be mistaken for failure.
  • Document process. In what ways can failure to reach a landmark translate into lessons learned? Documenting failures actually produces additional value, and may even have a bigger impact than immediate success.

17 Cooperrider, D., & Sekerka, L. E. (2006). Toward a theory of positive organizational change. In Joan V. Gallos (Ed.), Organization Development: A Jossey-Bass Reader. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons