Author: Emad Elias, MBA, PMP
So without all the psychological platitudes about try, try again and so on, many would agree that failure is a part of life; it’s a part of business. In fact, without the chance of failure, nothing can actually succeed. So then, is confidence to move ahead based on wanting to be right or is it lack of fear of being wrong? These are philosophical questions perhaps but for many businesses and government agencies, failure is quite practical relating to missing deadlines, overspending or not meeting an objective.
Learning from Failure
What gets in the way of learning from failure? Is it because organizations accept answers like “procedures were not followed” or “the timing just wasn’t right” or even, “he or she sabotaged the project”? What’s missing? Some, like Professor Amy Edmondson at Harvard, would say it’s context specific learning strategies. Every organization, to some extent, has people that play the “blame game”. Edmondson’s research indicates there are some explainable, cultural reasons why we have executives and employees who do not make the best of their opportunities to learn from failure. One of them could be that today’s generation of employees are yesterday’s children that took blame when admitting failure. There are three categories of failure according to Edmondson:
- Those that can be prevented.
- Those that result from complex operations but can be managed before they mushroom.
- Those that are ‘intelligent’, meaning purposeful experimentation produces ‘good failures’ that lead to innovation.
Again, following Edmondson’s theories, in a nutshell, she suggests a five point plan that would establish a ‘safe’ environment for people to learn from failure:
- Frame the work accurately
- Embrace messengers
- Acknowledge limits
- Invite participation
- Set boundaries and hold people accountable
- Accept that failure is a natural part of doing business: failures should come early, successes take time.
- Remove structural obstacles to reduce the objective risks of a failed venture: making the cost of failure be very high can stifle initiative and discourage ideas.
- Turn failure into fodder: policy makers and managers should train people in risk mitigation strategies; failing small in order to win big is in the end a win.
According to Daniel Isenberg, a Professor of Management Practice at Babson Global, here are three very brief ideas to avoid fear of failure and encourage some measured risk taking:
How do we apply this then to our work environments? It seems to come down to a real ‘paradigm’ shift, to use a buzz word. This means real courage to lead cultural change that requires transparency and vulnerability. What we have today in many government and private organizations is an environment where people somehow assume that allowing people to think their failures are ‘understood’ means these failures are accepted, which would lead to more mistakes and more failure. In other words, Theory X (McGregor from MIT). Stifling communication is what leads to failure, not seeking whom to blame. There IS a balance to be achieved.
“But I Just Want to Avoid Catastrophe!”
Let’s set a lower goal then if the above seems lofty or unrealistic. What if we just want to avoid catastrophe? We can draw on the work of Professors Tinsley and Dillon at Georgetown, and Madsen at Brigham Young. Perhaps akin to principles of crisis management, the idea is to pay attention to the near misses. These are defined as ‘unremarked small failures that permeate day-to-day business but cause no immediate harm’. The notion here is that there is no mechanism for people to recognize a systematic culture of complacency that accepts deviation from expected results.
This notion manifests in increasing tolerance of anomalies, un-raised alarms, foreshadowing of disasters not being heeded. More insidious than just a series of small failures not being acted upon or learned from, there is the risk that a successful outcome despite ‘some bumps along the road’ is taken as success. In others words, a sound process that leads to the desired result is to be repeated. Every one of us has said at one time or another, “Why fix what isn’t broken”.
The work of Professors Tinsley, Dillon and Madsen suggests seven things to do to recognize and prevent near misses:
- Heed High Pressure – As most project managers know, high importance on schedule for example can create an environment where near misses are ignored and quality suffers. Ask the question, “If I had more time and resources, would I make the same decision?”
- Learn From Deviations – Determine up front what acceptable risk is and do NOT make exceptions but make adjustments.
- Uncover Root Causes – Do not fix symptoms but spend time to discover actual causes of problems and failures. Determine lessons learned and apply them consistently.
- Demand Accountability – Require managers to justify their assessments of near misses. Do not allow managers to simply dodge bullets but rather explain how they are not only going be “miles away” from the bullet and even hit their targets.
- Consider Worst Case Scenarios – Like process improvement professionals that do not design processes for the ideal ‘Yes’ path, require that managers think through failure paths and design for avoidance, not near misses.
- Evaluate Projects at Every Stage – Accepting that there could be ‘outcome bias’ once a project is over as lessons learned are examined, do lessons learned DURING the project, not just after. Specifically focus on potential failures and successes along the way.
- Reward Owning Up – Publicly reward people for identifying and avoiding near misses. Do NOT punish early identification. Do NOT shoot the messenger.
Example – CAARMATM and High Flyers Inc.
Operating on the premise that in reading this, you agree that failure is indeed to be avoided but, more importantly, to be understood, can we go so far as to apply an organizational change model or strategy to the intentional ‘change’ that should happen as a result of the failure? Take CAARMATM for instance, Evans Incorporated’s organizational change model. CAARMATM is designed to ensure that organizational change supports business strategy and enhances the human factor – realizing change that works – regardless of the driving force for change. Let’s say now that an integral part of High Flyers Inc. (a fictitious organization for purposes of illustration) strategy was to consistently learn from failures and turn them into successes.
Consider the following scenario: High Flyers Inc. has been providing project management services to its clients for 15 years. It has consistently met its own internal goals in terms of growth and profits in a down market. It has been easy for them to find high quality employees that match a client’s need quite quickly, sometimes within a week of actually needing them to get working on a contract.
Things have taken a turn. Now the market is changing. Unemployment is down and employers are much more willing to invest and plan for growth in revenues and are hiring internally. High Flyers Inc. has now begun having trouble attracting top talent quickly and their reputation of being somewhat of a “revolving door” is catching up with them.
What’s the failure in the above scenario? The management leadership at High Flyers Inc. were of course faced with choices many times. The “winning” behaviors they had exhibited in birthing and growing the company had eroded. They had become complacent, overconfident. Slipping into “losing” behaviors was not a drop off a cliff but rather, multiple cross roads they did not recognize. The management team had essentially lost the discipline required to support their system, to responsibly manage themselves, to invest in one another. Eventually, they could not keep the promises they were making and could not deliver to their clients.
If, on the other hand, High Flyers Inc. Inc. had employed practices designed to identify signs of failure early, and indeed, had given all levels of staff the tools to avoid destructive patterns and get on (and stay on) winning paths, they would have been able to make the small corrections necessary to change course as the market turned. Assuming the above is the case, in a very simple way, the CAARMATM model described above, could have been applied as follows:
As leaders, consciously creating mechanisms or vehicles through which learning from failure can happen is not easy but can have very high impact to cost, schedule, and most importantly, to building and sustaining a culture of innovation. Framing the work, not ‘shooting the messenger’, but holding people accountable is one formula that works. Further, one must have an understanding that successes take time but early failure should be expected and ultimately, is a good thing. Also, that risk management can be an excellent tool for failing small and winning big.
So does all this mean we should never fail? Certainly not! If this were the case, success and winning would never be achieved. Combining some techniques that engineering firms have been using for years with principles of organizational change management can be powerful in assessing readiness for and implementation of best practices to change the perception of failure in itself. Life, whether in business or not, is very much about transcending failure, overcoming it along a path that searches for and finds weaknesses. The winners are more likely to analyze failure, devise plans to take calculated risks, make adjustments, and innovate. Is failure good then? Undoubtedly.