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Surviving an Unsuccessful Program


"Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." -- Henry Ford

I failed. I really hate to say that. In fact, I go to great lengths to avoid doing it and saying it. There are plenty of ways to say the word (the f-word), and, if you've been an instructor or program planner for many years, you've probably seen it expressed in many creative ways. The good news is I'm not alone in my distaste for, or experience of, failure. But if we're unable to risk failure, we're destined to design stagnant, outdated programs. And if we ignore our shortcomings (large or small), we miss valuable opportunities to learn, grow and improve as educators.

When is a program a failure?

What actually defines a flop? Programs may be described as failures if they don't achieve financial goals; meet enrollment targets; meet student or stakeholder expectations; or create the desired change in behavior. Most instructors or program planners know a program has failed long before a student turns in an evaluation that says, "I should have taken a nap instead." Many programs miss their mark long before the first lecture. There are four types of program failure.

  • Type 1: Program is terminated when planning is partially completed.
  • Type 2: Program planning is complete, but the program is cancelled due to insufficient enrollment.
  • Type 3: The program is offered but participant satisfaction is so low that students drop out or a decision is made to not offer the program again.
  • Type 4: The program is offered and the students are satisfied, but the program objectives have not been met, and the desired learning does not occur.(1)

Sometimes recognizing that a program won't succeed in its present form can allow early intervention to save the class before it heads toward the abyss of doom.

What Factors Distinguish Success and Failure?

Curriculum success and failure don't depend on one single factor. Lewis and Dunlop ranked the top 10 characteristics of successful and unsuccessful educational programs.(2) Click here for a table of their results.

What If My Program Fails?

No one likes to fail -- it's human nature. But if you choose to take the ostrich approach and bury your head in the sand (or shred those bad evaluations without really examining what they say), you increase your risk of coming up short again.

Begin by accepting the blame. "Owning it" is the first step on the path to discovering where things went awry.(3) This will allow you to analyze the program objectively to determine the root cause(s) of the problem. Often, as with medical errors, there's no one reason a program was unsuccessful. Multiple factors can contribute to taking the ship off course. This analysis is no different than performing an after-action call review or critique after a major EMS incident that didn't go smoothly. Talk about it.

Of course, to do this you must first pass step one -- accept the blame. Seek feedback from peers who are removed from the program. They may contribute input to help you figure out what went wrong, and equally importantly, to help you heal your wounded ego.

Moving On

The ability to move forward after a program failure often relates to a number of factors. First, how big was the failure? If it was career-changing or financially devastating, it may be difficult -- but not impossible. On the other hand, minor program failures, such as a lesson within an EMT program that didn't go well, should be easy to analyze, adapt and change.

Plan your next program with the lessons learned from this failure in mind. If you have carefully evaluated it, you're less likely to deliver a repeat performance and will be able to plan for success the second time around.

It's important to recognize that you're not alone -- everyone fails. People just don't advertise the missteps as loudly as their successes. Take a moment to ask yourself, a mentor or a fellow colleague to consider a recent program failure. Which of the factors listed in the table contributed to that failure? What (if anything) was done to "fix" the problem(s) identified? You shouldn't be surprised to learn that if you approach the failures with an open mind, your future programs will change for the better.

What are some common reasons programs have failed in your experience? Were any of them crazy or totally unexpected? We would love to hear from you. Comment below or send an e-mail to kimmckenna@sbcglobal.net.


  1. Sork TJ: Tools for planning better programs. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 1991(49):89 95, 1991.
  2. Lewis CH, Dunlop CC: Successful and unsuccessful adult education programs: Perceptions, explanations and implications. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 1991(49):15 28, 1991.
  3. Mills HH: Responding to success and failure. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 1991(49):81 88, 1991.


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