The Custodians of Failure


You are in a discussion about how to do something better at work. There is good agreement that the practice needs to be changed. The idea of the meeting is to canvass suggestions to be evaluated after a series of meetings to generate ideas.

The discussion is going well, and then. One of your organisation’s failure custodians speaks up:

“You know – they tried that last year, last decade, in another company, in another department, in 1952…It failed then and it won’t work now. I was here then and three months after they launched (here insert the name of any initiative) they went back to doing it the way we were doing it.”

Your organisation has a History of Failure Club whose members are the self-appointed guardians of the status quo – probably of the status quo before the current status quo!

There are two problems and a myriad of solutions to them. One problem is the existence of the club – what motivates some of your colleagues to be card-carrying members of the History of Failure Club? Secondly, what motivates some of your colleagues to offer up airy generalisations about what may have happened in the past as though they are considered responses?

To close the club down we need to understand the motivations. Once we can understand why we can see if there are ways, other than offering glib generalisations, which may achieve your colleagues’ motivations.

The solutions lie in organisational practices and in individual accountabilities. We look to organisational practices to confirm our expectations of how to contribute, and to individuals to be accountable for meeting expectations and calling behaviour which doesn’t meet expectations.

First, let’s take organisational practice. Organisations are to make clear that we are expected to disagree, and that we are expected to disagree without being disagreeable. Other reasonable expectations would include coming to meetings prepared, even brainstorming ones. Express yourself clearly and avoid generalities, glib and superficial statements posing as reasoning.

Then we look at individual accountabilities. If you do find yourself muttering the lazy “we tried it last year” you should expect to be called on it.

By Joe Moore. Joe is the founder and principal of Kimber Moore Associates. He and his team are highly skilled in helping leaders and staff deal with uncertainty, change, complexity and conflicts. You can contact Joe here

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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