Roger Lee

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How do we create organizational structures (resource distribution) where failure is not penalized but turn into an innovative resource?

Most of the military style command-and-control corporation structure still uses the yardstick of failure and success to distribute resources. Rather than relying on small number of thinkers like David to champion learning from failure, can we structure failure learning into an organizational structure (not just culture). Can we formalize a value system that overrides the humanity's aversion to failure? Knowledge management, outcome measurement vs. process measurement.

Can you have a truly learning organization without a structural focus on failure as learning and not as the eye of a blamestorm?

  • Dec 14 2011: I believe, and correct me if I am wrong, failure responses are more personal than structural. The main solution is to shift from a utopian perspective to a human perspective.

    Failure must be looked down upon when it comes due to deliberate leniency. You cannot look down on a failing organization if they have not received the resources, the knowledge, the time and even the trust to begin with.

    Expect failure to happen rather than expect it to never happen.
    As to changing humanity's extreme aversion to failure, I believe humanity must look at people, as people and not as the new model from a robotics company.

    I am sorry if my answer may not have helped but I really wish it did.
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      Dec 15 2011: Mohammad, thank for your comment. I agree failure response is more naturally personal than structural, but

      1) since so much of our world transformation is done through organizations, be it, corporation, churches, mosques, NGO, think tanks,
      2) if learning from failure is the fastest way for us to rapidly improve our outcome
      ,
      then it might be worth the energy to design structural sensitivity to failures and imbue "lessons learned" spirit into how we assign rewards, access to resource, and visibility.

      We can recognize human nature and we can expect failure to happen, but that still doesn't change how we respond to failure. Hubris is the feeling we can do no wrong, and I think most of the organizations operates from that emotional state.

      If we need to rapidly change our world, we need to find a way to structure humility.
      • Dec 18 2011: Ok, since you are looking for ideas, I think I may have something:

        Take our comments for example. You ask for a result, I give you my answer. I failed. But then you redirect me and I start over. As long as I have you to keep directing me in a positive manner, I would keep working till I have a solution.

        My point is: Organizations are so efficient at developing the world because they are informally made up of workers and re-directors. The more re-directors with ideas, the more things the workers haven't tried. They'll keep trying. People together gain power.

        You said so yourself: "Hubris is the feeling WE can do no wrong..."

        What if the org, is structured to enhance interdependent relationships? Failure would then be less of a negative factor.

        Because Failure can only stop US if WE stop at Failure.
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    V Raj

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    Dec 27 2011: Dear ROGER

    Frankly speaking – Organization can always learn because organizations are RUN by People and not by Robots! Yet the question is valid as Humans we are scared of losing, we are scared of failure as since our childhood we see Failures being reprimanded and Success being appreciated!

    Having said that, one must not forget that a Learning Organization can be built only if the person leading is willing to accept the change.... Great Organizations such as GE, HP, IBM, MICROSOFT, Reliance, ONGC, MOTOROLA, SONYs across globe are an example of it. These organizations have grown manifold because of the people who led these organizations.

    I believe what organizations learn depends on the way it looks at its goals! In some case it could be how to be more profitable or how to be more customers driven or how to make lives better of everyone involved i.e. employee, stake holders, customers, society everyone!

    I believe that with the advent of technology, excessive competition, desire to do better than our contemporaries, our peers, and most importantly the desire to meet the level of expectations we all seem to have become more self – centred and that reflects in the kind of organizations that we are building!
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      Dec 27 2011: Dear V:

      Looking back on some of the writing and my experience, I'm thinking maybe the Learning Organization is not a real quality, but simply a knowledge-heavy workforce. All of your example are about companies that needs knowledge to produce its product, so its workforce is highly educated. I know HP has a knowledge management issue because HP doesn't know what it already knows. This conversation has been nudging me towards thinking about how vastly we over-anthropomorphisize corporation and organizations....
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    V Raj

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    Dec 20 2011: One’s Weakness Is One’s Strength!

    To build an organization where failure is rewarded – seen as n inspiration to develop – innovate – create turns into Innovative Resourcing can only be achieved if the Organization is built on the principals of ‘Open Communication’ where employee interaction is encouraged, where one is willing to learn from others mistakes rather than mock them or punish them!

    Today organizations work on the principal of Rewarding the Success – Punish The failure; which is OK as the core goal of an organization is to earn profits for its employee and stake holders but then in doing so we tend to forget the 1st lesson that we were taught in our childhood.. Mistakes Are Good As They Teach U How To Do Things Right’

    Having said that, I agree with Mohammad when he says FAILURE Can Only Stop US When We Stop At Failure! Primarily it boils down to the people involved and their ability to deliver! In dire circumstances the very same people would scrounge through a pile of things (otherwise thought completely useless) to see if they can find something that can be used to survive one more day; if the very same attitude is adopted maybe we would succeed in building organisations where resources aren’t wasted and Failures are discussed in details allowing one and all to gain from the Experience as the innovation becomes paramount.
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      Dec 23 2011: V, thanks for your thoughtful responses.

      After reflecting on all these point of views, I"m still not sure of the direction my mind is taking. Can organization truly learn? What does the organization learn when we're said to have success or failure? Are we trying to create expectation of organizational behavior that takes a kind of saint to achieve?
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    Dec 19 2011: Hi Roger,
    It comes down to the people who organize theses projects. Of course, they try to do as much as they can with resources they can get. They must understand that the whole job must be done, not just the public image part. All the professional firms build successful plants. If they did not, they would disappear very quickly.
    When any job is funded, it must be done properly. There needs to be some kind of world licensing system that requires all international projects to reach required standards, both technical and contract before they are approved. (Maybe there is something already!). Doners are more likely to fund properly licensed projects. Unfortunately, the cost of failures is often borne by people who were not the original suppliers. There really needs to be some way of holding retention money for 5 or 10 years, against any repairs or replacements that prove necessary.
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      Dec 19 2011: Vernon, I think your ideas is a good one, not just for charity works but for all business. Most of the effort has been the certification of an organization following a standard operational procedures, such as the ISO certifications or the FairTrade label.

      I'm not sure licensing or certification would work for evaluating innovative projects, since, innovative projects, by definition, has no precedents.

      The central problem mentioned by David Damberger is the incompleteness of knowledge, and how we don't focus on gathering knowledge from failure. NGO already assume their work is complete and don't look for contrary evidence, and most organization don't find failures due to lack of looking, not lack of failure.

      Part of reason is the lack of organizational attention span and donor attention span. Perhaps the episodic nature of NGO project failure is that people fail to remember.
  • Dec 18 2011: I think you must create an atmosphere where everybody feels free to tell about failures (without being blamed for it). It starts with the highest level: if - for example - a manager is able to admit a failure, the others will do the same. And before you know, you will receive support and possibly new solutions.

    But first you should ask the right questions. Behind every failure will be reasons and arguments why a solution was the best one at that time. It is a challenge to find out what made a person do what she/he did. Nobody fails on purpose.

    The strange thing about this subject is that many companies claim that failures are allowed - but when a mistake is made, sombody has to get the blame. And really, it is not interesting to blame somebody. It's interesting to find out how the failure can be turned into something positive/good. In the end it is about being able to learn from what happened.

    In order to get a balance, it is also important to know what went well. Admit your failure, be proud of your succes.
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    Dec 18 2011: To Roger and Mohammad. We already know how to build things that do not fail. Either the right people are not on the job, or they turn a blind eye because it is a 'freebie'
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      Dec 18 2011: Vernon, I think that's the crux of my question. If we know how to build things that do not fail, then why do they? You have mentioned the human weakness, but I want to know how to create organizational structure that overcomes that.
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    Dec 18 2011: As an engineer, I soon learned that there is no such thing as a cheap or quick job. We very quickly found that the savings usually make the project less efficient in terms of value for money. The only way to do anything is to do it right. Every contract must carry guaranties, extended spares holdings, and maintenance programs. Building the plant is only half the job. The beneficiaries themselves must control the whole project. After all, they have to live with the finished job. Do not under estimate their capabilities. If they do not have the skills now, we must train them first. A gift is not a gift if it is incomplete. DO NOT GIVE PEOPLE HOPE AND THEN DISAPPOINT THEM BY SKIMPING ON THE JOB.
    One of the world organisations must set minimum standards for all work, whether donated or commercial. Most donors, I am sure, would prefer to see that their largesse is used to the best effect.