Thursday, September 6, 2018

Failing to Accept Failure

While perseverance and tenacity are generally admirable qualities, they can be taken to far – to the point that they become dysfunctional.   In individuals, we can quickly recognize those who have a pathological need to spin their histories to make even their most dismal failures sound like success stories.   In organizations, we can also witness those who insist on propping up unprofitable products and programs for years in spite of the harm that they are doing to the health of the organization as a whole.   Nobody wants to fail, so there is a lack of knowledge, education, and etiquette for failure – except to deny it and keep fighting a losing battle.

Ironically, working in new product development in a change-averse organization has taught me to anticipate failure.   There is seldom much excitement about the prospect of success, and every review and checkpoint that a new idea must go through seems to be based on the presumption that the product will fail – the sponsor must work hard to develop an ironclad case that addresses every imaginable contingency, and those along the approval gantlet can be very creative in imagining contingencies that would cause the product to fail.   As a result, very few new products have been introduced in decades.

But it’s been remarked that there is no such rigor for existing products.   Shall we continue to offer a product or program that has been losing money for years?   The default answer is “of course.”   The decision has already been made, people have already committed, and we have to work hard to make keep a failing product afloat.  How embarrassing it would be for everyone who signed off on that product, and how detrimental to all those whose profession is to support it, if we were now to admit that it is a failure.

And so, the failing product lines trudge on, their expenses compensated for by successful product lines.  The successful product lines do not evolve, and they cannot be competitively priced because their revenue must compensate the firm for the weight of one or more failing products that the firm refuses to abandon.   There is no periodic checkpoint at which an established product must re-prove its merit in the same way (and certainly not to the same level of rigor) as a new product.  There is no sunset plan to elegantly phase out a failing product or program.

The exception to this seems to be when there is a change in management.  A new leader can be objective about standing products and programs – he had no part in their creation, nor in their perpetuation to date, so he can call something a failure without losing face because it was someone else’s work.  Often, this “someone else” is the previous leader, who is already being demonized in his absence.   Even so, this seems to happen less and less in the present day: new leaders enter an organization without making a splash, and barely a ripple, as they perpetuate the old products and programs without many dramatic changes.

And this reflects back on a cultural intolerance of failure – “success or death” rather than admit to having made a mistake, or admit that times have changed and a once-successful product or program has lost its appeal.  The more it happens, the more difficult it is to see perseverance and tenacity as noble qualities when they lead, inexorably, to catastrophic failure instead of success.

No comments:

Post a Comment