A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure

In recent posts, we discussed the concept of embracing failure, beginning with looking at the organizational benefits of doing so, as well as the risks of ignoring this failure. Next, we talked about strategies that can help use failure as a learning experience and then discussed three categories of failure in a follow-up post.failure
Here, we’ll look at several sources of common failures according to a Harvard Business Review article by Amy C. Edmondson, author and Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School.

Some Failures Easier to Accept

In our previous post, we noted that some failures are more forgivable than others, such as those that occur when pushing the boundaries of science and technology; these failures are an expected part of the experimentation process, but those that occur while performing routine tasks should be easier to avoid and are, therefore, less acceptable.

From Deviance to Exploratory Testing

Edmondson presents the following “Spectrum of Reasons for Failure,” from blameworthy to praiseworthy—or, as she describes them, from “Deviance” to “Exploratory Testing.”

  • Deviance: “An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.”
  • Inattention: “An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.”
  • Lack of Ability: “An individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions, or training to execute a job.”
  • Process Inadequacy: “A competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.”
  • Task Challenge: “An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.”
  • Process Complexity: “A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.”
  • Uncertainty: “A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.”
  • Hypothesis Testing: “An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.”
  • Exploratory Testing: “An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result.”

Understanding the factors that lead to a failure is essential in evaluating the seriousness of the failure—was it an expected part of the experimentation process or the result of a deliberate bad actor? In addition, it’s important to update processes and procedures to prevent recurring failures.
In our final post on this topic, we’ll take a broader look at organizational failure and discuss the importance of promoting experimentation and creating a culture of learning.