Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure

Observer introduction: I saw this is the Harvard Business Review. I really like it. I think there is a lot of truth here. It looks at reasons for failure with regard to blame and blaming an individual or group. Not all failure is created equal. This realization, along with removing a culture of fear to me is key to management of failure in a productive way. First, a bit of background from the article:
Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures. Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized. Executives I've interviewed in organizations as different as hospitals and investment banks admit to being torn: How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude? If people aren't blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work? This concern is based on a false dichotomy. In actuality, a culture that makes it safe to admit and report a failure can--and in some organizational contexts must--coexist with high standards for performance. To understand why, look at the exhibit "A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure" [I reproduce it below], which lists cause ranging from deliberate deviation to thoughtful experimentation. Which of these causes involve blameworthy actions? Deliberate deviance, first on the list, obviously warrants blame. But inattention might not. If it results from a lack of effort, perhaps it's blameworthy. But if it results from fatigue near the end of an overly long shift, the manager who assigned the shift is more at fault than the employee. As we go down the list, it gets more and more difficult to find blameworthy acts. In fact, a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy. When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and them to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits--perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost. (p. 50)

A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure:
Top--Most Blameworthy, moving towards more Praiseworthy.

Deviance: An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.

Inattention: An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications

Lack of Ability: An individual doesn't have the skills, conditions, or training to execute a job.

Process Inadequacy: A competent individual adheres to prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.

Task Challenge: An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.

Process Complexity: A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.

Uncertainty: A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesirable results.

Hypothesis Testing: An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.

Exploratory Testing: An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result. (p. 50)

Observer commentary: This has a lot of applications in a lot of settings: workplace, government, personal life. It is not about creating an environment where excellence is not the goal or routinely expected, or shirking responsibility for one's part when failure occurs. It is about creating a positive and encouraging environment where failure is not covered up, but opened up, and is seen, not as something to punish but something to learn from.

Reference: Amy C. Edmondson "Strategies for Learning From Failure" Harvard Business Review 89:4 April 2011 pp. 48-55.

Yahoo! Fixed it! Enjoy!


Bob G. said...

You hit one "out of the park" on THIS post...kudos to you!

And I agree with the assessment and level of blame based on the circumstances mentioned.

Brilliantly presented.

Have a great weekend, "Slugger"!

Stay safe out there.

The Observer said...

Bob G:
Not too bad a weekend around here--we will see what the next week brings!

Thanks for reading this--I think it is great and should be read by all in management positions no matter what the field.

The Observer