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Failing Forward at WeRobotics

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July 26th, 2021

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When we give ourselves permission to fail,
we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel. ~ Eloise Ristad

Credit: Smith.edu


There are seemingly endless sayings about failure. The website Goodreads, for example, lists no fewer than 2,870 quotes on failure. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of those quoted are Westerners. Try searching instead for “quotes about failure, from other countries,” and Google will give you the top 40 quotes about failed states. But we digress. We believe that failing and accepting failure is part of evolution. It’s all about mindset. Over the past six years, we’ve co-created a more robust and more sustainable network of Flying Labs thanks to hundreds of small and, at times big failures. And for this, we are grateful. The purpose of this post is to share our most important failures. We often share these in calls and meetings with partners and donors, but we’re overdue in sharing these more broadly. Why now? Now is as good a time as any. Why even share our failings? Have a read through the quotes above about failure. Learning and self-improvement are not possible without failure. So if others can benefit from our failures, then we’ll count that as a major win. 

We founded WeRobotics in parallel as the first Flying Labs was in discussion in Nepal. The months and years that followed were often met with confusion amongst partners and donors. “What is the relationship between WeRobotics and Flying Labs? Aren’t Flying Labs just WeRobotics Labs? Why are two different identities even necessary? Are they both legal entities?” We largely failed to provide a concise answer during the early years, which did little to stem the confusion. Some detractors with ulterior motives took advantage of this lack of clarity to claim that Flying Labs were owned, controlled, and micromanaged by WeRobotics. This couldn't be further from the truth. Our failure to paint a clear picture of reality early on led to some painful moments. 

Today, we are much better at explaining why and how Flying Labs are distinct from WeRobotics and describe the relationship between the two.

During the early years of the Flying Labs Network, we assumed that having “Regional Flying Labs” might enable more direct “South-to-South” knowledge exchange and capacity strengthening. The reasoning was that as a small not-for-profit organization, we might have more impact by collaborating more extensively with a few Flying Labs that are most keen to expand their capacity to the point that they become the primary source of training and technical support for other Flying Labs in their regions. We called these other Flying Labs “Affiliate Flying Labs.” Unfortunately, the introduction of regional and affiliate Flying Labs didn’t pan out the way we expected. It created more confusion. Flying Labs were already a new concept for many, and now we were suggesting that there were, in fact, different types of Flying Labs. This created more complexity. What’s more, having two different types of Flying Labs created a sense of division between Flying Labs, creating the perception that Regional Flying Labs are “bigger and better” than others. Talk about #FAIL

Today, there are Flying Labs, plain and simple.

Funding a new international nonprofit organization to co-create a unique network of knowledge hubs (Flying Labs) is not exactly a piece of cake. We actively promoted local expertise through the Flying Labs brand during the early years because we felt it was vital to make Flying Labs highly visible to donors. In a few cases, our promotion of certain Flying Labs ran the risk of overshadowing some of the local organizations hosting those Flying Labs. This was highly counterproductive to our objectives. We are all about promoting local expertise and local organizations. The success of hosting organizations becomes the success of Flying Labs, just as the success of Flying Labs becomes the success of hosting organizations. Hosting organizations are vital to the Flying Labs. They are the Flying Labs Network. What’s more, hosting organizations are clear proof that local expertise exists and that Flying Labs are necessarily local. 

Today, we very much encourage Flying Labs and their hosting organizations to jointly brand relevant projects. This idea first came from Peru Flying Labs. The team there printed t-shirts with both the logo of their Flying Labs and the logo of their hosting organizations. 

When we began to hear in 2020 that some large organizations were referring to WeRobotics as “Oh, those drones people,” we realized we were yet again failing. Upon further reflection, “those drones people” perception should have come as no surprise. Our initial communications strategy had focused almost entirely on the positive impact that drones can bring to different social good sectors. Why? Because back in 2015/2016, there were still more skeptics than believers. Small drones were still being written off as toys, or as dangerous, or both. So our priority at the time was to help build the evidence base for the value-add of drones. When this evidence began to gain traction, we shifted our communications strategy to emphasize that locally-led applications of emerging technologies are more effective, sustainable, and equitable. What we failed to do earlier rather than later, however, was to clearly emphasize that it isn’t about technology. Demand-driven inclusive models that shift power with local experts and organizations are far more important than any emerging technology.

Today, we have a clear Endgame and roadmap to achieve this Endgame. 

Successful Flying Labs are demand-driven rather than actively recruited. The very few Flying Labs that we sought to recruit top-down in recent years never got off the ground. The other 30+ Flying Labs that were demand-driven are still part of the Flying Labs Network. This experience made us extremely wary of promoting the Network to prospective hosting organizations. Even raising awareness about the Network (without doing any recruiting) was an approach we entirely shied away from as a result. Neither “extreme” is the way to go. After all, we actively recruited the first 3 Flying Labs that joined the Network, and these have been some of the most impactful of Flying Labs. 

This doesn’t mean we’re going to replicate this recruitment strategy again, however. Instead, we want to identify other ways to raise awareness about the Value Proposition of the Flying Labs Network, e.g., using Flying Labs Day and Open Houses. So we’re exploring ideas around virtual Open Houses led by existing Flying Labs, not intending to recruit new Flying Labs but to raise awareness. The point here is to let relevant actors in a given country know that the Flying Labs Network exists. 

Rest assured, we will keep failing forward, learning, evolving, and sharing all of it. We hope this inspires you to do the same. And now, to end as we started, with an obligatory failure quote:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again. That is why I succeed. ~ Michael Jordan

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