This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I have to confess to being very tired of the old aphorism, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Planning to fail is actually a worthwhile exercise, while failing to plan is simply a good way to waste time and energy without any benefit at the end. Failure is a surprisingly useful tool, at least for those who are not afraid to use it.
Seeing how your plan is failing can give you vital information on how to shift focus, allocate resources, and generally adjust your strategy. On a more subtle level, we won’t fully trust a plan that fails to consider failure: we need to have confidence that our plans or our feedback systems will alert us to something going wrong in order for us to believe it when things are going right. I’ve frequently seen companies abandon working plans simply because they had never determined how they’d know if something was going wrong and therefore concluded that something must be going wrong no matter how much evidence they had that their plans were working!
More broadly, though, the difficulty is often a misunderstanding of what it means to plan. I’ve worked for companies that tried to plan projects out 2-3 or more years. While this is possible in a very broad sense, details matter, and you can’t plan details that far in advance. Instead, you have to plan the steps in front of you. Part of the plan is to pause periodically and review the plan. What worked? What didn’t work? What are the next steps? Developing an effective strategy is not something you do once and then execute blindly; you have to constantly adjust as circumstances change. The beginning chess player tries to play out a sequence of moves and is paralyzed when the opponent doesn’t respond as expected; the chess master has a plan and constantly adjusts his strategy in response to his opponent. You need to plan far enough, but not too far: This may sound like it contradicts the concept of reverse goal chaining; not at all. It is simply the case that the more distal steps are going to be vague until you get close enough to see the details. Good strategy requires a certain comfort with ambiguity and the ability to periodically evaluate, adjust, and adapt any plan.
Interestingly enough, the beginning chess player usually can’t explain his plan, while the master can. The beginner’s plan sounds like, “I have a plan: I’ll do this, and this, and this, and that’s how I’ll win.” The chess master, on the other hand, is likely to treat you to a detailed discussion of his thinking processes and chess strategy. The first is easy to say and easy to listen to, but is fundamentally useless. The second is hard to articulate and takes a lot of effort to follow, but actually does have a chance of working. Part of the reason it works is that the chess master has contingencies built into his strategy: he’s already considering that his opponent might do something unexpected and is mentally prepared to handle that. The beginner, by assuming that each step simply needs to be executed in the proper sequence, is locking himself into a rigid mindset. Chess strategy or business strategy, the results are same.
Fundamentally, failure is a form of feedback. In fact, this is exactly what you want failure to be: a means of testing out different strategies and figuring out which ones work best. Used this way, failure can be very helpful. Indeed, without such productive failures learning and strategy development is impossible.
However, sometimes the cost of failure can be somewhat higher. If Billy’s goal is to cross the street safely 75% of the time, what about the other 25%? Even if we raise the expectation to 99%, that one failure can negate all the successes: getting hit by a car can ruin your whole day.
It’s all too easy to confuse the two types of failures and businesses do it all the time. They are afraid to fail when that failure would give them valuable information and they take risks that sound good but where one slip causes you to lose everything.
How do we tell the two types of failure apart?
“Author Stephen Balzac has written a terrific book that gets into the realpolitik of organizational psychology – the underlying patterns of behavior that create the all important company culture. He doesn’t stop at the surface level, explaining things we already know like ‘culture beats strategy’ – he gets into the deeper drivers and ties everything back to specific, actionable stories. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.”
Chief Technology Officer
Attivio – Active Intelligence