Safe-fail or Fail-safe

September 2, 2006

One of the consequences of an over focus on process, be it BPR (Business Process re-engineering) or the more recent manifestation in Six-Sigma (which I sometimes refer to as Six-Stigma for reasons that I will expand on at some stage in the future) is an emphasis on Fail-safe, or getting it right. Now in a complex system, as I summarised recently you can never fully know the outcome in advance. If I cannot predict the end point of the journey and follow defined paths it behooves me to be more careful about the starting conditions. I also need to realise that I can’t get it right in advance, so I need to experiment with different ways of approaching the journey that are safe-fail in nature. That is to say I can afford them to fail and critically, I plan them so that through that failure I learn more about the terrain through which I wish to travel.

Getting people to think safe-fail in organisational cultures that are fail-safe is very difficult. It is not just a matter of management saying that failure is permitted it is also about making some very dramatic interventions to indicate that you really mean it. Most people working in large (or even small) organisations know that the reality of life is that people who succeed but do not learn, progress faster than people who learn through partial failure. Total failure should not be tolerated as it indicates Fail-safe badly executed, but Fail-safe with luck involves no learning, and there is often more contextual luck in stories of Executive success than there is judgement. Rewarding failure is a hard pill to swallow but a necessary one for organisations.

Of course one of the ways to undertake a safe-fail policy is to make sure you have diversity through debate. A too early consensus leads to premature convergence and a tendency to fall in with a herd mentality. I raised this in an early blog titled the yang doesn’t get the yin-yang but I came across another way of thinking about debate the other day when I was doing my normal morning check on the limited number of blogs I read daily.

The boys at Anecdote are amongst the most effective intellectual magpies in the blogosphere and there is always something new to pick up on for research, dispute or disagreement. Shawn’s recent list of blogs he monitors impressed me greatly and gave me some additions to my own list. One of the phrases they picked up was strong opinions weakly held which combines my ideas on debate over dialogue and safe-fail policies well. They got it from Bob Sutton who in turn got it from the IFTF

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