Friday, May 11, 2012

Three Kinds of Failure

Are we learning? Are we anticipating? Are we adapting to the changing present? These are big questions that need to be asked by all leaders and their teams. There are good reasons to ask all three of these questions.

In his book "Military Misfortunes:  The Anatomy of Failure in War",  Eliot Cohen analyzes military disasters and lays out a method for understanding failure.  His central thesis is that there are three kinds of failure...Failure to Learn, Failure to Anticipate, and Failure to Adapt to the Changing Present.    He uses historical military examples to understand those failures.  He also identifies something he calls "aggregate failure" and "catastrophic failure", but it's these first three that I believe are more generalizable to the business world.

The "Failure to Learn" is almost a cliche in business.  Most often you hear it referred to by the term "we don't want to reinvent the wheel".  The need to learn from past experience is well known.  It's surprising then, how often it occurs in spite of the awareness.  My experience is this occurs when there is a mistaken belief that the underlying circumstances that resulted in failure "have changed" or it was a "good idea but the timing wasn't right before" or "they didn't execute it very well", or  "things are different here".  Beware and go very slowly when these code words appear.

"Failure to Anticipate" is really the subject of most strategic planning efforts.  As an example, the list of companies that failed to anticipate the impact of digitization is long...Barnes and Noble...really any brick and mortar book store, Blockbuster video, travel agencies, universities, brick and mortar banks...the list goes on and on.  My former company Shell, and it's well documented use of scenario planning is an example of how to address the "anticipation challenge".

To me, "Failure to adapt the changing present" is the most fascinating of the three kinds of failure Cohen identifies. The best example of how to address the "changing present" challenge of which I'm aware is also from a military context.  Journalist Joey Galloway describes the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in his book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young.”   He accompanied then LTC Hal Moore and the soldiers of the US 1st Cavalry Division on their mission.  It’s a gripping story involving a hellacious fight between two very capable armies. In the middle of this three day battle, Galloway observed LTC Moore occasionally remove himself and just stand silently and observe the what was going on.  Later Galloway asked LTC Moore what he was doing in those moments.  LTC Moore responded he would periodically ask himself three questions:“What is happening? What is not happening? How can I influence the action?”   It talks to agility of thinking, flexibility, speed in decision making and not being "married to the plan".   The leader who asks himself those three questions from time to time is taking a big step to adapting to the changing present.

Are we learning? Are we anticipating?  Are we adapting to the Changing present?

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