In the spirit of celebrating failures as learning opportunities, and in accordance with a burgeoning festive tradition, David and Santiago discuss various self-defined “blunders” that members of IDEMS staff have made over the last 12 months. There can be only one winner of the IDEMS Blunder of the Year 2023!
[00:00:00] Santiago: Hi, and welcome to a festive edition of the IDEMS podcast. I am Santiago Borio, an Impact Activation Fellow, and I’m here with David Stern, Founding Director of IDEMS. Hi, David.
[00:00:16] David: Hi Santiago, and I hope you’re enjoying the holidays.
[00:00:21] Santiago: I am indeed enjoying the holidays in sunny Argentina. Very hot, very humid.
[00:00:27] David: Warmer than me, actually.
[00:00:29] Santiago: Yeah, 30 odd degrees, very humid, quite challenging in some ways, but absolutely lovely.
[00:00:38] David: Absolutely.
[00:00:40] Santiago: Now, we have a… um, When is something a tradition?
[00:00:45] David: It’s not yet a tradition. It started last year. It might become a tradition if it keeps going for a few more years. We have a, maybe embrio of a tradition.
[00:00:55] Santiago: We have a movement that started last year, an initiative that started last year in the festive period where we recognize our blunders, mistakes, some serious, some funny, some personal, some professional, that we just highlighted and shared with everyone for a prize to see who made the biggest blunder of the year.
[00:01:24] David: Wait a second, wait a second. I won last year and I don’t remember getting a prize. I definitely remember winning.
[00:01:31] Santiago: Sorry, the prize is the recognition.
[00:01:33] David: Oh, okay, yeah. But I definitely won last year. Anyway, we won’t go into that story again, but…
[00:01:40] Santiago: So last year we did it in one of our team talks, which are the fortnightly meetings that we have as a team. This year, on top of doing that and sharing the learnings with the team we will…
[00:01:54] David: Well, we’re having this podcast where the two of us get to discuss this and you get to pick the winner in some sense. Now, of course, this could be overruled by the team at a later date, but we should come to the end of this podcast with this year’s champion already decided. I’m quite confident. It’s… it is what it is.
[00:02:16] Santiago: There’s always a possibility that the team will decide that the winner that I select is not the actual winner, but…
[00:02:24] David: But for today, you have full power and I’m confident in my ability.
[00:02:30] Santiago: Good. Let’s crack on then.
[00:02:34] David: Let’s crack on.
[00:02:35] Santiago: I think it’s only fair to kick things off with my blunder given that I’m leading this discussion. My blunder was very early on in the year. At the end of last year, we invited a member of a ministry of education that we were discussing collaborations with in Africa to a Maths Camp in Kenya…
[00:03:01] David: Yes, I remember that.
[00:03:02] Santiago: …to experience the Maths Camp, see what it was like, so that they could take it back to their country and see if they could organise with a bit of our support a Maths Camp, get funding, and potentially scale it through the country. As a ministry, they have the infrastructure to do so. They went to the camp, we had discussions early in the year, and we came up with a budget, we came up with all sorts of ideas, a plan, and we submitted it, and suddenly I got a call from a senior member of the ministry saying, hang on a second, you are including three different departments in this, and we haven’t cleared it.
There’s a lot of people saying that they want part of the budget or they need part of the budget because it’s involving their staff as well. This is all wrong.
[00:04:00] David: Yeah.
[00:04:00] Santiago: That was a big blunder. That was me not understanding how politics works. That is me only experienced working with organizations that are fairly small in comparison to a ministry of education. Luckily, the person was very understanding and very quickly jumped in to put out my fires, politically speaking.
[00:04:25] David: Well, they put out the fires, but unfortunately everything also dampened the actual initiative because trying to do this within a ministry setting became a lot more complicated because of all the departments involved and so on.
This was a very good learning experience for you, I think, as you think about scale and actually doing things at a country level rather than just locally.
[00:04:47] Santiago: Yeah it was a huge learning experience for me and also in terms of diplomacy when dealing with politicians. You have to be diplomatic, you have to consider every possible outcome, it’s tough.
And I didn’t mention in the introduction to this episode, but we should highlight, we only do these blunders because it’s part of our working culture to learn from mistakes. We are continually evolving, we learn constantly, and we like highlighting these errors, mistakes, blunders, we call them. But we only do so as a learning exercise, not to ostracize anyone, not to point fingers or anything of the sort.
[00:05:34] David: On the contrary, it is recognised that actually most good learning comes from recognising and identifying and acting on our mistakes. So this is something where we’re not the first people to take this sort of approach, and I hope we won’t be the last. This is something which should become more common in organisations, in business. We believe that celebrating some of our failures as learning opportunities is really important.
[00:06:00] Santiago: Indeed, indeed. I’m a teacher. I taught for a long time and my message to my students was always I love mistakes. They’re the best learning opportunity. So for the last 15 years, I’ve been saying that.
[00:06:16] David: Yes.
[00:06:17] Santiago: So we’re very much aligned in our thinking in that regard. So, given that you are a part of the discussion, I think the next blunder should be yours. And in fact, I might share two of yours that you shared with me. I asked for people to send me recordings, and I’m the only one who didn’t send a recording because I was going to be doing the recording here. But anyway, here’s the first one of yours.
[00:06:45] David recorded: I won last year, and this one’s one which is going to be competitive against for this year. I have been trying for quite a while to learn how to tell the IDEMS story so that we can get investment and or support from donors. And my cousin very kindly got me in front of a high net worth individual, the only person I’ve actually talked to of that kind, who could and who does give large sums of money as donations and could make an investment. And we had a wonderful chat for an hour, after which my cousin informed me of how useless I was because I didn’t actually ask for anything.
[00:07:23] Santiago: Good, that is an interesting one.
[00:07:25] David: It’s one where, I suppose part of my learnings from this over this year is that I’m not the right person for those sorts of discussions. Now I really enjoyed that discussion in all sorts of different ways, but there’s too many things which could have been interesting or useful, and I didn’t actually hone in and suggest something concrete. I didn’t have that ready. I’m not the right person for that. I have many strengths, but I live in complexity and really those discussions need an element of simplicity, which I just, I’m not good at bringing to the table.
[00:07:59] Santiago: Well you say you’re not good, that’s arguable but let’s not get into that, today’s about learning.
[00:08:04] David: Yes, exactly. In that particular case, I had an opportunity which I wasn’t able to seize because I wasn’t prepared for that. And in some sense as an organisation we haven’t been prepared for that, and we need to, because if we want to grow and we want to achieve the things we want to achieve we can’t do it alone. We have to bring others on board and have that support. And recognising that a big part of that is, is bringing other people to the table who have a different skill set, and who can tell our stories, is part of what we’re trying to do.
[00:08:39] Santiago: And it’s quite an important part of what we are trying to do right now with this.
[00:08:44] David: Absolutely. And well, the podcast is part of telling our stories, but it’s actually deliberately the fact that, well, in the podcast we can live in complexity and can delve into complexity.
[00:08:57] Santiago: Let’s get back to that.
[00:08:59] David: My other one’s simpler.
[00:09:01] Santiago: So I want to share your other one, because your other one is fantastic. I absolutely love it. It’s a lot less serious. As I said earlier, we have a mixture of type of blunders.
[00:09:14] David recorded: Okay, another small one for the year. I booked flights to go to a workshop in Burkina Faso. Got good flights, the ones that I wanted, but I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention. Because if I had been paying attention, I’d have actually known that those, that Air France was not flying to Burkina Faso at the point in time when I booked. They were hoping to restart. And so when they didn’t restart, my flights were then cancelled, and I had to then go through a whole other process again to get flights going with a different company. Luckily it was still possible, quite a lot less, convenient, but it was still possible to go and I was able to rearrange at the last minute. But I really should have been paying more attention to what was actually happening with flights in the region at that point in time.
[00:10:02] Santiago: That is wonderful. And I have to add to that one. I have to add another anecdote, blunder mistake that you personally made with regards to flights this year. We were running a workshop in Ethiopia. You were quite central to that workshop. You were incredibly busy at that time of the year, and we were expecting you to arrive on the Sunday before the workshop started.
[00:10:37] David: That was a very sensible time to arrive.
[00:10:39] Santiago: It was a very sensible time to arrive. We had even arranged some quite important meetings with the head of department and uh, the university. You turned up at the airport to take a flight to arrive on Sunday morning and you said to the person at the check in counter, this is very strange, I tried to check in online and it would not let me. I hope there’s no issues. The person looked at your printout or screenshot or whatever it was, and said sir, your flight is tomorrow.
[00:11:19] David: Wait, wait, wait, wait, this is, this is a, no, no, no. It wasn’t quite that simple. No, they did take half an hour to tell me my flight was tomorrow. And that I wasn’t on the register for today because I was booked up tomorrow. It wasn’t as simple as just looking at what I’d printed out. No, no, no, no, no. They actually didn’t notice that for a long, long time. I was there for half an hour, an hour, before they noticed I was there at the wrong day. I’d forgotten that one.
[00:11:46] Santiago: That is quite a good one.
[00:11:48] David: It’s not the first time this thing has happened to me. But last time it happened to me, they managed to get me on the flight. This time they didn’t, unfortunately. Actually, turning up a day early rather than a day late tends to, you know…
[00:12:02] Santiago: Yeah, a day early is better than a day late. And I think the learning is twofold. Attention to detail is one of the two learnings. And the second, one that you won’t yet accept I don’t think, or maybe it’s not the right time, as you often say, is you need a PA.
[00:12:28] David: Yeah, well I’ll accept that I’m really good at attention to detail on things that I care about. I don’t tend to care about.
[00:12:34] Santiago: You didn’t care about the workshop?
[00:12:36] David: Well, I do care about the workshop, but I don’t particularly care about putting time and effort into booking flights and that sort of thing. So I can on occasion make slight miscalculations there. And this is one of the reasons that I’m a consistent winner at these sorts of events.
[00:12:53] Santiago: [Laughs]. Well, I think that Ethiopia, the closeness with me, may be the one that I vote for, but let’s see. We have someone else in the team who everyone within the team will know who it is, but prefer to remain anonymous to the wider public. And they said that their blunder was about learning to communicate better with clients.
They said they found out on a Friday that people at the Met office in Jamaica were expecting them for the next Monday, while they had booked their flights for the week after, since they had never received confirmation from the Met Office that they were happy for them to go there earlier.
[00:13:47] David: Well, there are sometimes these communication issues. There was a particularly complicated scenario and set of things happening and there was a lack of communication on a suggestion that had been made, where actually without communicating, they had made plans, but never actually communicated that they’d made those plans. And so… Yes, that is a good one, I must admit.
[00:14:13] Santiago: That’s a good one and a similar one. They booked a flight to go to Tajikistan another time only to find out one week before travelling, that the people who were running the workshop moved the date of the workshop.
[00:14:29] David: Yes, and it’s one of those things that is surprisingly common. For those people working internationally that they’ll recognise these sorts of blunders. They happen quite a lot. They’re often marginally outside our control. We could be more forceful and more fixed on what we do, but when you’re flexible and you adapt to your local partner’s needs, things can sometimes really change at the last minute in a way which is disruptive, but it’s part of, part of what we have to adapt to.
[00:14:58] Santiago: It is indeed. And it all comes down to communication as well.
[00:15:03] David: Quite often. But the solution is not always communication. This is important, actually.
[00:15:08] Santiago: Yeah.
[00:15:08] David: And in this particular case, we often have this where we have partners that we work with who are difficult to communicate with. And a big part of that is about actually building flexibility in, building adaptability in. In sort of higher resource environments where people are used to planning a long way in advance, you can get cheap tickets in advance and you can know that your plans will unlikely change. Whereas in a lot of the cases that we work, a huge number of actual events have been cancelled at the last minute, changed, adapted for reasons outside our control. This is something where it isn’t just about communication, it is about being flexible, and that’s something which one of our strengths as an organisation doesn’t make it easy for our staff.
[00:15:55] Santiago: And you say it’s one of our strengths it’s not universally one of our strengths. If you asked me about my weaknesses, one of my weaknesses would be not being particularly flexible. I don’t deal very well with sudden changes. But trying to get better, I would say.
[00:16:14] David: I mean, the way you organized and you worked on the STACK conference, you were certainly being tested on this.
[00:16:21] Santiago: Yes. Let’s put a bit of context. I organised a conference in June in Kenya at a university. A lot of things had to happen very last minute. That was a challenge, but anyway, it’s not about today, it’s about blunders and learning.
[00:16:33] David: Yes.
[00:16:34] Santiago: Okay, let’s go with this one. This was Lily. She’s happy for me to mention her. And it may sound a bit serious, let me say in advance, the problem was rectified and it all turned out well.
[00:16:51] Lily recorded: I know that there’s many, many mistakes I’ve made this year. But honestly, I’ve drawn a blank, except for one which I remember which is for the Turing course Responsible AI course that we did with the Turing Institute. And we had over a hundred videos for this, which then I was going through and editing. And in one of them, they slipped through my editing process. Which meant that we had… basically had the wrong version up, with us then correcting it in that video. So, we kind of start the conversation, then I think it’s David in the middle goes, No, no, no, we have to start this again. And then the correct version, and I just didn’t notice that when doing the kind of quality control process until I think it was David Whittaker pointed it out to me.
Another one is, and I’ve not actually mentioned this, but I think we’ve lost a video between David and John for a conclusion. I cannot find it anywhere. It’s not working for anyone on the course. So yeah, they’re two of my blunders related to the same thing.
[00:17:55] David: I mean, man, she was under pressure when she had to get those videos out.
[00:18:01] Santiago: Yeah, and handing over a piece of work with media that is not working. Sounds serious. We managed to rectify that, I believe. It’s all good now. But yes, hard, hard to keep file structures, file names accurate, consistent when you have so many of them.
[00:18:23] David: Absolutely. And it was as she put it, she took responsibility. We didn’t originally think we were going to have so many. I think we planned to have less than half. And the number grew as, as actually the ideas blossomed in that course in different ways. I don’t think that the core structure, now I’m not as happy with as a whole. It was intended for the Turing Institute as self learning for data scientists. And we’ve learned since that actually we’ve done more work where we’re actually giving these sorts of courses with a face to face component in a way that I think works better than the remote self learning course. And I think that these videos, there were just so many of them, it just got overwhelming.
[00:19:09] Santiago: Yeah, understandably so.
[00:19:11] David: Two percent error rate, it’s the sort of thing, it’s sort of, you know, two percent error rate on a hundred videos, that’s two videos.
[00:19:18] Santiago: Right, let’s have a look at another.
[00:19:22] David: Let’s do Lucie.
[00:19:23] Santiago: Lucie. Okay, there’s two of them:
[00:19:25] Lucie recorded: So one of my blenders this year is to assume too much. This came up in two specific cases, that I can think of at least. One was in terms of managing finances. I basically hoped that, or assumed that things would be fine. And a colleague pointed out that no, when you’re managing finances, actually you really do need to have evidence and you need to make sure that everything not so much adds up, but you know, in terms of the paperwork and everything, that it all makes sense. So that’s one case where definitely I shouldn’t really just assume!
And my other example is in terms of managing data. So I work with statisticians and I assumed that my statistician colleague had analysed data and identified all sort of potential mistakes and things like that. And really I shouldn’t, I should involve myself more in it and take responsibility for the analysis as well, even though I’m not a statistician. So the main learnings that come out of that is to stick my nose more into things, I guess!
[00:20:35] David: I hadn’t heard that one. I like it a lot. And Lucie has done incredibly well this year, as we had a new phase of a grant, she took over actually doing some of the oversight of this. And as she said on the finances at the beginning, it was a good three, four month period where suddenly, you know, her assuming this was working rather than the oversight that had been there before meant that we actually had quite a lot of work to try and fix that in retrospect. But it’s all sorted now, but that paperwork builds up pretty fast.
And then the example with the analysis, it was this issue about, it’s one thing to know technically what to do, but actually, you want people who understand the problem to get involved. And so she was just expecting it, and many scientists do this, actually expect you can hand over your data to a statistician and they’ll come back with the answers for you. But what she’s learned very well over the last year or so, and there’s been some rather concrete examples of this, is that when you do that, you might find the statisticians actually spend an awful long time on something which isn’t very useful.
And so we have our colleagues who are working with her in West Africa, who ended up spending I think a month or so, working on using a really complicated statistical method, which ended up just finding out something she already knew, which didn’t actually give them any other information. Having spent all this time on this deep analysis using a complicated method, where at the end, yes, it’s you know, short season varieties grow faster than long season ones. Basically what came out.
[00:22:24] Santiago: I have two reactions to what Lucie said, and to your response partly as well. It comes up again and again in discussions that we have some in podcasts with artificial intelligence, even though you are given an answer, looking at that answer and understanding that answer is really important. It’s not just for AI, it’s for pretty much everything you do. You cannot just rely on other people without thinking and without putting care and attention.
[00:23:02] David: Well, no, it’s more than that. You’ve got to understand what data can tell you. And whether you’re using AI or much simpler analysis, the nature of the analysis can be so valuable and so helpful. But it can only do certain things. Understanding what it can do and can’t do and the limitations of what it will give you, and the immense power of the things it can create. I’m thinking now of generative AI. It’s incredibly powerful what it can create, but there’s certain things where we’ll never be able to do, because the data fed in, is what it is.
[00:23:41] Santiago: Yeah I’m going to stop you there because whenever we start speaking about AI it could take hours.
[00:23:47] David: And, yeah, we’re already almost out of time.
[00:23:49] Santiago: I do want to mention one final reaction and perhaps my justification for not choosing Lucie as the winner of the Blunder of the Year. One of her reflections is that I’m not a specialist in statistics, but I still look at it, I still learn that I need to look at it, and I’m learning, and I think that she is potentially one of IDEMS’s best examples of our transdisciplinarity principle.
[00:24:21] David: Well, and I think this is something which as an organization, we do pretty well, that getting people to go out of their discipline, you know, she’s an anthropologist by training, but she’s recognizing the value of complementing those skills and go beyond that and actually getting skills beyond where she’s coming from is fantastic. This is exactly the transdisciplinarity we’re looking for. We’re not trying to turn her into a statistician. We value her anthropological skills above everything else, but the fact that she’s working across disciplines is so important and wonderful. It’s exactly what we need.
[00:24:55] Santiago: Yeah. Um, there’s one final person who I would like to not mention because they asked to remain anonymous. But again, the team will know who this is. Two blunders. I’m not going to read them out. I’m just going to mention them. One is difficulties working with a particular piece of software, which I’m not sure we can mention, that is very complicated to use sometimes. Understand your tools, know what you choose to use and what you choose not to use at each time. That’s part of the learning.
And the other one, we had a meeting the IDEMS team meeting in person. There’s six, seven Maths PhDs in the room maybe eight doesn’t matter quite a few. This person in one of the breaks had to teach their daughter some year seven maths homework, and it all went pear shaped because they realised that they didn’t actually understand it.
With several maths PhDs a couple of experienced maths educators in the room a quick chat would have gone…
[00:26:13] David: A long way.
[00:26:16] Santiago: Or a five minute YouTube search. That tends to help as well. So not work in isolation, I think is the learning.
[00:26:28] David: I think one of the things there is, that’s not working in isolation because this wasn’t part of their job, but actually recognising the value of community. This is what IDEMS is all about. It’s building that community, using the community we build for things which are maybe just part of who you are is what we would like to encourage. So yes, they should have just had a chat to someone in the room.
[00:26:52] Santiago: Yep, indeed, indeed. So we’re about out of time. We have quite a few other blunders. Sorry to everyone else who contributed that your blunders didn’t quite make it. They don’t make the learnings less important. It’s just we have a time limit on the number of mistakes that we made. We could spend hours but we have to get to the winner. I have a clear winner in mind, and I hinted to it already, and I have to say, turning up at the airport the day before your flight, thinking that day is your flight, David, I think that if you don’t disagree, I’m gonna arbitrarily decide that you get the prize again.
[00:27:38] David: Two years in a row, I’ll try and make it a hat trick next year.
[00:27:44] Santiago: I hope so, I very much hope so.
Well I hope everyone has a very good festive season. See you in the new year.
[00:27:53] David: Thank you. All the best.