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Failure as insights into complex systems


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In seeking to address complex problems, testing out different approaches is key. But the stigma of failure gets in the way of recognising and learning from failure. Although we can learn from pratice where there is sufficient trust to expose personal failures, where there isn't a shared experience of innovation (testing and learning rapidly), organisational learning from failure is unlikely.

I suggest the need to develop new ways of collaborating to share unique and critical insights from failure in complex systems.

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Failure as insights into complex systems

  1. 1. Failure as insights into complex systems: potential for adaptation(resilience)In this short paper I start to explore the relationship between personal learning andwhen in complex systems, and how our attitudes towards failure can act as acatalyst to both developing insights into and then adapting to changes in complexsystems, that generates organisational resilience. 1I take the premise that failure can give us unique and critical insights, and theemotional response to failure can make us want to stop and examine and makesense of what has occurred. But the skill is in recognising that where we operatein complex systems, that reflective process cannot be an internally focussed one;we require more information about the context, to find the underlying issues,before we can successfully determine how we need to respond.I think there are some practical and cultural challenges to developing this practice.I am seeking to draw attention to these as the basis for developing practice in thisarea. I am guided by literature and practice in complexity theory, learningorganisations and generative learning, and community resilience 2 .Reflective practice: key for learning from failure. Issue over scaling up fromdefined to complex systems.Our ability to engage in reflective practice kept coming out in my ‘Failure Files onTour’ 3 conversations this year, as critical to being able to learn from failure. Bothas a mindset of not letting failure become debilitating, that failure is natural, that itis just a moment in time, part of the journey of development; and as a practical wayof being able to learn, and adapt your actions in response to failure.But how does this individual capacity to learn from failure, to capitalise on allopportunities, to adapt and so be resilient in the face of unintended 4consequences of actions, play out in organisations and communities?Where we are interested in how failure occurs as a combination of multiple agentsand factors, which is what happens when organisations or communities act 5 , weneed to be interested in making sense of these multiple and interconnectedactivities. Hence reflective practice that involves a larger amount of information,coming from a larger range of sources, to gain sufficient insight into that complexsystem.I am inspired by a number of people who in the course of ‘failure’ conversationshave talked about creating the space for dialogue about the impact of activities intheir organisations (what’s occurring).1 I use the term organisation broadly, encompassing communities as well, unless otherwise stated.2 In particular, Mitleton-Kelly, E.; Argyris, C, Schön, D, Weick, K, Jones, A.M., and Hendry, C.; Wheatley, M:see endnotes.3 RSA Glory of Failure: We could also debate the happy accidents in innovation, that are positive rather than negative unintendedconsequences.5 High levels of interconnectivity are a feature of complex systems 1
  2. 2. The issue that appears, however, is the tension between size of organisation andthe ability to build trusting and emotionally mature relationships to enableindividuals to want to engage in a process that involves a level of vulnerability(accepting the possibility of personal failure being part of organisational failure). Itis the fear of being judged by someone else’s standard of failure.The more complex the issue or system which we operate in is, the greater theconnections with other agents, and so the need to involve more of them in thedialogue over failure to make sense of it. However, in expanding the connections,the less likely it is that we have the kind of trusted relationships with others thatgive us confidence in exposing our vulnerabilities.In relating it back to reflective practice, I can see three levels of informationrequired for action: from self-contained feedback loops for developing individualskills, where you are practicing a new skill in a fairly stable environment; tofeedback in a more dynamic environment where it is not just the individual’s skills,but the information needed to decide about application within the organisationalcontext; and then up to the mass of information required from a range of agentsworking in a dynamic environment to improve things at an organisational systemlevel. 6Meg Wheatly talks about the role of leaders in facilitating conversations withincreasingly diverse groups of people in order to work with the complexity thatexists in communities, to solve community problems, to build resilient communities7 .It’s easier to do this in small units because we can build these units aroundcommon values. The skill is in working with a diverse group of people and stillengaging in meaningful dialogue about failure.So how might we build trust in large organisations?Or do we need to find a different approach for drawing together and making senseof the critical insights from failure in complex systems? Which could be:Anonymising the feedback – with limitations on the capacity for dialogue or sense-making.Keeping the core team looking at the failure relatively small and strongly bonded,and add in a smaller number of additional agents – with limitations on the range ofinsights. The additional agents might participate as if working within trustedrelationships if the behaviour of the core team demonstrates this.6 This relates to Jones, A,M. and Hendry, C.’s work around the four levels of organisational learning, withcollaborative and generative being the two higher levels, that relate to my one here.7 Wheatley, M. including in ‘Leadership and the New Science’ (1999) 2
  3. 3. Seeing the value of failure as critical and unique insights that overrides thedrivers to ignore it: How might we choose to collaborate and risk personalloss for gain?Recognising the value of learning from failure is critical to choosing to cometogether.If we are going to make this choice, we need to understand the balance betweenthe impetus to engage in dialogue over failure and question it in depth, in a waythat we dont have the incentive to where something is successful, which createsthe opportunity to uncover critical insights; and the impetus to ignore it becausethe failure is too painful or we feel too vulnerable with others. 8Do we hold the view that failure is not an endpoint, but it does give us direction? 9That describing it as a failure helps is to clarify that it is not creating the desiredoutcome 10 ; and we need to explore the failure because it gives us unique insightsinto the conditions that mean we are not achieving our desired outcome.Where there is a shared desire to move beyond the failure I can see the desire tomeet and learn.However, often one of the features of complex problems is distributed leadershipand lack of connectivity amongst ownership of problem, ability to act, and impact ofproblem 11 . Where this occurs, we frequently don’t have the right incentives inplace, and so this enable individuals to ignore the problem, the default position isthat they can, probably because they seem too difficult to solve and/or the systemfailure is perceived as too much of a personal failure.The Glory of Failure is all about creating a compelling case to learn collaborativelyabout failure. Within this, I want to be able to demonstrate that there is intrinsicvalue in learning from failure in complex systems, that is not dependent onownership of the complex problem, such that agents in complex systems willchoose to collaborate in order to do so.Some of the questions that now follow from creating purpose in examining failureare around the potential to act: what would give us confidence that insights gainedfrom taking the risk in examining failures collaboratively will be acted on?(1) Signals that learning is a primary driver of organisational success: statusnot tied up with superficial success but with impact over time.I think the context of the organisation, as one where learning is valued andconnected with better outcomes for the organisation, is critical for demonstratingthat the organisation can act on the insights gained from examining failure at anorganisational level. We should not underestimate the division between theory8 Stewart Lane’s point that the Glory of Failure offers a mechanism for examining failure when it is painful:“taking the sting out of it”.9 David Hillson describing failure as directional in chapter 2 of ‘The Failure Files’10 A key theme from my chapter on failure in government, ‘The Failure Files’, is our ability to judge andrecognise failure, which I will return to.11 See description of how this plays out in government, in chapter 10 of ‘The Failure Files’ (my chapter) 3
  4. 4. and practice. The signals that leaders give out are key, and there is plenty ofliterature that delves into this.I dont think the nature of these activities should be prescribed, they have to beappropriate for the organisational context. One I would like to highlight is WilliamStarling’s 12 idea of using semi-structured interviews when recruiting, that includequestions about ‘what I learnt from one of my failures’ as a method for theorganisation signalling that what is key is the learning not the act of failure. I seethis as being transformational in my organisation if as leaders we can be congruentwith this ask of others and our own ability to expose and learn from failure.Two powerful examples that came out in ‘failure’ seminars this year exemplify thisleadership behaviour. Firstly, a company director talking about asking his staffabout their failures during the year at annual appraisals: “if youre not makingmistakes, youre not trying things out or stretching yourself, you’re just warming theseat for eight hours a day.” Secondly, another director explaining the company’semotional maturity in sharing the “mistake of the week, cock-up of the month, anddisaster of the year” as a way of learning from failure.In this way, the leadership signals and the organisational norms demonstrate thefundamental value of learning for the organisation’s success. In accepting thatfailure is natural, you are not setting the expectation of success that precludes anyfailure. Personal success can include failure. Status is not derived from talkingsolely about success.(2) Creating the space for responding to failure insights: Recognising thatorganisations need mechanisms for innovation (prototyping, experimenting)In complex systems the process of determining what is going to be successful isn’tsimply the opposite of what determines the failure. Recognising failure isdirectional in closing off certain approaches, but we have to keep testing outdifferent approaches.Prof. Eve Mitleton-Kelly talks about the need for multiple micro-strategies: incomplex systems the context is critical and the impact of the intervention isunpredictable, so it is wise to have a number of different approaches that can betested and adapted relatively quickly and easily.So the question then becomes about creating and valuing space forexperimentation as part of a structured innovation process. Recognising that weare testing and we need to adapt, rather than being fixed to a particular approach.Being as clear as possible on the outcomes, but not tied to a particular method,and clarifying the need to hold this uncertainty.Without experience of seeing the positive outcomes of structured innovationprocesses within organisations you are very unlikely to create the skills and findthe resources required to set these up.12 Dr William Starling, FRSA, whose Doctorate was in failure in mechanical systems. 4
  5. 5. Where government organisations act like monopolies, and the forces publiclyscrutinising policies are conservative and strong, it can be incredibly difficult if notimpossible to demonstrate this value, to get to any shared experience of it. 13Innovation Units may be more effective when at arms length from government 14 .However, this avoids my fundamental question about embedding a culture oflearning from failure in organisations.Recognition of failure: tensions in describing emergent criteria and inhierarchical organisations.Finally, I want to return to the fundamental question of our ability to recognisefailure, both for organisations to be able to hear signals that actions are failing, andin being able to judge whether the preferred course of action is likely to besuccessful in a complex system.I think the mechanisms for being attuned to signals that actions are failing are thesame as the ones described above for coming together to learn from failure andrespond to it: spaces where we reflect on and share insights into what is changing.As Chris Argyris, Donald Schön, Karl Weick 15 and many others have explained sowell, we need to notice how the world is changing around us, the dynamics ofcomplex systems, as a first step in organisational sustainability. Seen in this way,failure is a natural product of a dynamic world: the changing context means whatonce was successful no longer is.By making sense of the ‘noise’ together we are able to notice trends and, wherethis process is sanctioned by the organisation, it can prevent the suppression offeedback that isnt politically favourable. Tim Harford explains this very eloquentlyin relation to US military operations in Iraq: that for political reasons thegovernment could not acknowledge the existence of insurgents, which meant theirstrategy was ineffective. 16In this case, the status of the leaders being derived from their ability to know moreor better than others (leader as hero) got in the way of the organisation being ableto listen out for, hear, and respond to failure.Knowing when to judge that something is a failure or is failing is difficult in complexsystems because the development process has to be emergent, as it needs to bebased on the particular context, and therefore the indicators of success can’t befully fixed from the outset. In addition, the impact of our interventions often comesquite a while afterwards.So when questioning an intervention that is not achieving the desired outcome,how can we know whether it is about timing, about needing to fine-tune theapproach, or whether there is a fundamental flaw?13 See discussions about scrutiny in government within chapter 10 of ‘The Failure Files’ (my chapter)14 Mulgan, G. (2009). See also various commentaries on ‘SkunkWorks’.15 Argyris, C and Schön, D (1978). Weick, K (1995)16 Tim Harford’s Ted Talk. 5
  6. 6. How can we get better at determining how to judge if something is failing? If weneed it to be emergent, how does this hold with any propensity to ignore and hidethe failure?SummaryIn this paper I have started to explore our adaptive capability, why and how werespond to failure, as how we get to success when working in complex systems,because of the need to test out approaches based on the particular circumstancesand in recognising the impact of a dynamic environment.I can see that being able to engage in reflective practice is a strong starting point,and there are further issues I would like to explore:Creating a compelling case for seeing the value of failure as unique and criticalinsights, which enables individuals to choose to collaborate where it involvespersonal risk, in order to solve complex problems.Creating sufficient trust to explore failure with a wide range of individuals.Creating cultural norms that connect learning with organisational outcomes, andstatus being derived from success over time.Valuing innovation processes, building on the basic but fundamental connectionsbetween learning and organisational outcomes.Developing practice for understanding and recognising when something is failing,where the criteria are emergent.My aim is that this short paper helps to create further dialogue and practice thatcan be shared and applied.Esmee thanks to Roxanne Persaud (aka the Maid of Fail) for insightful feedback. 6
  7. 7. ReferencesArgyris, C. and Schön, D. (1978) Organisational Learning: A Theory of ActionPerspective. Addison Wesley Longman.Jones, A.M. and Hendry, C (1992) The Learning Organisation: A Review ofLiterature and Practice. Human Resource Development Partnership.Harford, T. See the Ted talk at, D. (ed.) (2011) The Failure Files. Triarchy Press.Mitleton-Kelly, E.: see full list of publications at gave a seminar introducing complexity theory to a group of private and thirdsector leaders in Ipswich in September 2009. I first met her through the ERSCand LSE complexity seminars, at the ‘modelling for policy’ seminar in June 2009., G. (2009) The Art of Public Strategy: Mobilising Power and Knowledge forthe Common Good. Oxford University Press.Weick, K. (1995) Sensemaking in Organisations. Sage Publications.Wheatley, M.J. (1999) Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in aChaotic World, and (2005) Finding Our Way. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.I heard Meg speak at a seminar for public, private and third sector leaders inIpswich in January 2010. 7