The Gates Foundation's initial missteps in eradicating polio hold a powerful lesson about the importance of confronting failure

Win McNamee / Getty ImagesBill and Melinda Gates didn’t give up on their goal.
  • Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, initially failed to stop the spread of polio, Jean Case writes in her new book, “Be Fearless.”
  • So they took a step back and retooled their approach to be more effective by focusing on improving countries’ overall health systems.
  • In 2018 there were 31 cases of polio worldwide – down from 350,000 in 1988.
  • The story shows the importance of addressing failure head on and analysing it, however uncomfortable it may be.

In 2009, Bill Gates met with a World Health Organisation official to talk about global progress on defeating polio.

Gates had spent $US700 million – through the Gates Foundation, which he runs with his wife, Melinda – to try to eradicate the disease. Still, polio was spreading throughout Africa, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Gates turned to the WHO official and asked: “So, what do we do next?”

That line is reprinted in “Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthrough and Purpose,” a new book by Jean Case, the CEO of the Case Foundation and chairman of the National Geographic Society.

Case uses it to make a point about the importance of confronting failure head on and making the necessary tweaks to your strategy.

As The Journal reported, the Gates Foundation came up with a new plan that involved not just tackling individual diseases but bolstering the health system in poor countries. The Gates Foundation website describes some other tactics, including investing in vaccine research and establishing emergency operations centres in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.


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When the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was founded, in 1988, there were 350,000 cases of polio reported globally. In 2018 there were 31.

A key to success is spotting the potential for failure early on

In “Be Fearless,” Case writes that the key to the Gates Foundation’s success was “identifying the potential for failure early on so that you can course-correct before it’s too late.” Both individuals and organisations can replicate that strategy.

Case writes, “It’s important to have an honest discussion about what’s working and what’s not, and to tap others to help you identify what’s wrong and make necessary adjustments along the way.”

In the case of eradicating polio, failure comes at a huge cost – the loss of human life. But when the stakes are lower, some successful people go so far as to celebrate failure.

As Business Insider’s Tanza Loudenback reported, Spanx founder Sara Blakely said her father used to encourage her and her brother to share their failures at the dinner table. “What it did was reframe my definition of failure,” Blakely said. “Failure for me became not trying, versus the outcome.”

Read more: Gates is worth $US95 billion and he plans to give most of it away. Here’s how he spends his money now, from a luxury-car collection to incredible real estate.

To be sure, most of us don’t relish the idea of scrutinizing our failures.

As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has written for the Harvard Business Review, “examining our failures in depth is emotionally unpleasant and can chip away at our self-esteem.”

She adds: “Analysing organizational failures requires inquiry and openness, patience, and a tolerance for causal ambiguity. Yet managers typically admire and are rewarded for decisiveness, efficiency, and action.”

In “Be Fearless,” Case writes that the Gateses didn’t scrap their plans to fight polio once they saw their efforts weren’t paying off.

She writes: “The key is that they never doubted they were on the right track. They never considered bailing. They took the long view and figured out what it would take to get the job done, despite the setbacks along the way.”

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