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Gospels of Failure – Fast Company – Sowjanya Kodidala

by on October 15, 2007

9/11 Commission Report is the official report of the events leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was prepared by the National Commission on terrorist attacks on the United States. In this article author gives a very good insight into commission’s findings of the deep institutional failures and how our short-term earnings and publicity blocks us to learn from our blunders. Commission reports that the system was blinking red prior to the 9/11 disaster. According to the author, one of the following three factors was the greatest culprit in ignoring, trapping, or suppressing crucial warning signs i.e. imagination, culture, or communication. These factors made those blinking red signals hard to see.

Gospel of failure #1: Lack of Imagination
Institutionalizing Disruptive Intelligence
The 9/11 commission talks about breathtaking illustration of how, even seven days before 9/11 disaster, government leaders still were underestimating the severity of the Al Qaeda posed. Richard Clarke, former counterterrorist coordinator sent a letter to Condoleezza Rice in which he wrote “Are we serious about dealing with the al Qaeda [sic] threat? . . . Is al Qaeda a big deal?” The 9/11 commission calls this lack of imagination “the most important failure” of leaders in the September 11 tragedy. According to the commission, “cultural asymmetry” had taken hold, blinding leaders to the gravity of the danger and id the reason for failure of imagination. Commission therefore says it is crucial to find a way of routinizing the exercise of imagination. Author argues that it sounds more a lot like the concept of disruptive innovation.
The commission’s report proposes a process that provides a framework for imagining multiple potential failures. The previously used methods were not used consistently. The counterterrorist Center did not perform “red team” analysis from the enemy’s perspective that likely would have predicted the use of air planes in suicide attacks. Nor did it develop indicators for monitoring this kind of attack—or potential defenses against it.
Trying to imagine future scenarios without the right framework or expertise would be confusing. Everyone in the organization uses scenario planning; leaders tend to focus on probable rather than the disruptive. When you ask the question “In every situation, tell me what will happen?” it forces intelligence community to come either the most likely scenario. To get the top management to listen to more than one outcome, start by presenting the most credible outcome first. If you don’t give them that scenario first, they will reject everything they hear the scenario they already believe in. Peter Schwartz says.
Karl Weick, a professor of University of Michigan Business School talks about another manageable approach – is to think backward from a potential outcome, which will surface the events that could create it. He suggests using the future perfect tense as a simple but disciplined way of imagining what could happen. “It anchors you in the future.”
I think it’s impossible to imagine all possible scenarios before an event occurs. Having said that, I agree with Gorelick, the former 9/11 commissioner to some extent in the sense that it doesn’t harm if we put our systems in place that allow the imagination that’s naturally occurring to actually breakthrough. This will definitely help us quite a bit, but we have to understand the issues that could arise due to over imagination. There could be too many scenarios to pursue, but there are always limited resources in terms of time and people. Also, if one believes that a particular scenario is important, then that person has to convince others and get them to agree; and that is where the difficulty is.

Gospel of failure #2: Proud Culture
Disturbing the perfect place
The article mentions about NASA and some of the failures caused due to NASA. An organization can fail however elaborate the system may be. NASA has failed in a few instances especially in the 1960’s. During the Apollo era, NASA came close to being the best organization. This success sometimes reinforces lessons that become harmful over time. It viewed itself as a perfect place also led to a warped outlook on safety. This it has been the sole problem and the honest pride going toward self confidence, over confidence, complacency, and arrogance. It is deeply troubled and it needs new ways of thinking and new ways of coming to terms with social, economic and political developments/changes. Leaders often create a culture and it therefore becomes their sole responsibility to change it.
NASA is rated low on perceived organizational support, upward communication, less than desired on justice, management credibility, and safety climate. It is also rated low on use of rigorous, informed judgment and assessments of risk as basis for safety decision making. NASA is putting out its efforts in changing the current culture plan and it can be concluded that if they put in their best efforts, it might be successful in changing the culture. There is more potential to learn from a failure. The author still focuses on failure but doesn’t concentrate as how can he turn them to successes.

Gospel of failure #3: Lack of proper communication
Dissolving Environments of Separation
The New York Times products are stories, its suppliers and diverse voices, and its mission is to ferret out the truth. So it’s hard to miss the irony spelled out by authors of the report investigating the Blair Scandal. “ A failure to communicate – to tell other editors what some people in the newsroom knew – emerges as the single most consistent cause, after Jason Blair’s own behavior, of the catastrophe. “The newsroom of THE New York Times, the report authors write, was “an environment of separation” The imperious, hard driving leadership of executive editor Howell Raines, a self declared “change agent” bent on outdoing other papers, and have a recipe for communication disaster. Raines reputation for playing favorites and pushing his idea of what should be in the paper only worsened the situation.
Under Raines’s leadership, communication also deteriorated in an increasingly centralized hierarchy. Department heads had been crucial communication links. They were the key to the information flow between frontline editors and top management. But as much of their power shifted upward, these key links in the communication chain suffered a loss of authority. With that, went a decline of communication.
The Times’ problems were bigger than just Raines. Rather, they appeal for strengthening the social network at the Times in order to share information more effectively. The members are requested more informal brainstorming among reporters and editors in different departments, more cross- departmental meetings. These seem like simple things, but they are actually tough to pull off. “I think people often underestimate the amount of resourcefulness that’s required to proactively shape new communication patterns,” says Niko Canner.
“Do people understand the way to communicate information so that they will value from an exchange with a conversational partner they’re not used to talking with? Can they build those new behaviors into the day to day of how they do their work?
In the face of failure, however, leaders must embrace the unconventional. They have to allow communications at the periphery. They must shape cultures that are open both to the possibility of failure and to need to learn when problems do occur.
I agree with the author on the third gospel of failure i.e. lack of communication because it is really difficult for people to work together in modern organizations in harmony because of the fact that people come with different backgrounds, skills, values, cultures, languages and age differences.
If all these are taken into consideration, then the best place for a human to be alive is home.

Thus I conclude by saying, though the author focused on the things that failed, but he is missing a valuable point that “Failures are the stepping stone for successes” and also that no-one in the world can succeed in one shot. It’s always easy to say what should not have been done than to say what needs to be done.

Koch, Christopher; “The Rules of Change Management,” September 15, 2006,
1. Wikipedia, October 2007,
2. John M.Logsdon, “The Devil Is In The Culture NASA, The Columbia Accident, And ITS Aftermath”
Related articles
1. Donna J Bear, “If At First You Don’t Fail”
2. George Olsen, “A Failure To Communicate” March 30, 2001
3. Eli Lilly: Productive Failure , “Fast Take : Culture”
4. Jena MCGregor “The Imagination Was There” February 2005
5. Dr. Michael Harris Bond, “Cross- Cultural Issues In Managing the Organization: The Case Of Hong Kong”
6. John E Prescott, Stephen H. Miller, “Proven Strategies In Competitive Intelligence : Lessons from the Trenches ”,M1

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