Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Teaming" Day 3: Three Types of Failure

This is our third post on Amy Edmondson's "Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy."

Chapter 5 is called "Failing Better to Succeed Faster" and it's full of wonderful insights about learning from mistakes. Amy defines three types of failure so well and so crisply that I won't paraphrase the definitions, but will quote them directly:

  • Preventable Failures: process deviations in well-understood domains, usually caused by behavior, skill or support deficits. 

  • Complex Failures: process or system breakdowns that arise due to inherent uncertainty and may or may not be identified in time to prevent consequential accidents.

  • Intelligent Failures: the unsuccessful trials that occur as part of thoughtful experiments and provide valuable new information or data.

Of these three, complex may be the most difficult to manage. In routine environments, preventable failures should be easy to spot and to diagnose. In innovative environments, tolerance for failure is built in. In complex environments, however, deviation from expectations could be a "near miss" that could lead to a "consequential accident." It could be valuable information about a change in the environment. It might be an anomaly, due to events out of your control. How do you learn and improve in complex operations?

When reviewing these types of failures, first, don't blame individuals. Second, don't jump to the first explanation that springs to mind. [Quote from "Teaming": "The primary danger in failure analysis is that people tend to leap prematurely to conclusions, unless the analysis emphasizes a careful consideration of all possible causes and effects."] Finally, take ownership of the failure by looking at things you and your team can do differently when confronted with a similar situation in the future.

Here's a real example. I was involved on a sales campaign with a large customer. We crafted a very innovative solution for them. The team at the customer was very confident in our capabilities and had justified this project. We had negotiated price, and contractual points. Finally, only one more signature was needed by a customer executive.

He did not sign.

We who had worked on the opportunity were crestfallen. We had done everything we could to win this deal, and had nothing to show for it. Our first reaction was to chalk the failure up to bad luck, or fate, or even an evil, conniving customer executive plotting to screw us.

But as we reflected on the situation, it became clear that we had not done everything we could have. We had not fully understood who at the customer could make a commitment for this business. And we hadn't gotten in contact with that person to see if this project helped him with his objectives, or whether there were other projects he felt more passionate about. So, the learning was this: the next time we engaged on a sales campaign, we would, as early as possible, understand who would sign the contract and assess how to enlist that person's support. And if we couldn't enlist that support, consider stopping the pursuit.

You can find all our posts related to "Teaming" here.

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