Learning from failure: our project on watershed entities and plans

Projects never go quite as planned, even in the best of times. And virtually nothing went as planned in 2020. But even projects that don’t hit their deliverables, that fizzle out, that ultimately end in failure, can be rich learning experiences.

In early 2020, Our Living Waters and the Forum for Leadership on Water embarked on a project to develop criteria for assessing watershed entities and plans. OLW had previously completed a quantitative assessment that looked at whether watershed entities and plans existed in all 167 sub-watersheds across the country. But we wanted to know: what does a viable and effective watershed entity or plan look like? We wanted to identify the best practices so we could qualitatively assess the entities and plans that do exist.

We knew that answering these questions would require a bigger study than we could pull off at the time, so our project focused on doing the groundwork and developing a framework for this bigger study. We did not succeed. We began the project prior to the pandemic, and by the end of 2020 we decided to call it quits. But we learned a lot along the way that can inform future work.

Why did the project fail?

First and foremost, our initial scope was too ambitious and likely not feasible from the outset. We knew that we were trying to answer big questions, which is why this project started as a framing exercise. But ultimately, we may have been framing a study that simply cannot be done in a good way. While compiling background information and meeting with the project steering committee, it became clear that this work would be dogged by complexity. What does a viable and effective watershed entity or plan look like? In short, it depends.The answer is so contextual and place-specific, it became clear that codifying a clear set of general ‘best practices’ would be disingenuous. We also felt that the issue ought to be approached with more humility. Who were we to determine best practices for place-based watershed entities and plans given how contextual they are?

Second, COVID happened. Now, COVID happened for everyone, and 2020 was a year of creative pivots and finding ways to get things done even in the face of the pandemic. So no excuses. But for us, COVID meant that our attention went to other, more pressing priorities, such as engaging in discussions around federal stimulus spending. It also meant that we could not convene a group of experts in-person to dig deep into watershed entities and plans best practices, which was a key step of the project.

It was these two things together that ultimately sunk the project. We were dealing with a very complex and, in some ways, unwieldy topic, and COVID provided an excuse to focus our attention elsewhere. The project fizzled out.

What did we learn?

One thing we learned was that we should have spent more time and effort upfront to collaboratively scope the project. Rather than diving in with an idea and building time within the project to do scoping work, we should have taken the time and energy to do this better before making the decision to launch. This approach would have saved us some time and energy.

Second, we learned defining a viable and effective watershed entity or plan in a generalizable way at the national level is likely not particularly useful. Effectiveness is so contextual and difficult to assess – it is not impossible, but it needs to be done on a case by case basis. Our scope was too big and our questions too ambitious to produce meaningful outcomes in the time that we had.

Andrew Stegemann
About Andrew Stegemann
Former National Director - Our Living Waters: father, husband, outdoor enthusiast, water advocate, and lover of good food … and scotch!
Learning from failure: our project on watershed entities and plans
Learning from failure: our project on watershed entities and plans
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