Failure is not an option, how to discuss the dreaded ‘f’ word without being made a scapegoat
In the church of corporate culture it is almost blasphemous to explain how something might fail. The skill and expertise to mitigate risks is underappreciated, if not openly resented.
I have experienced executive leaders who see challenges to their ideas as evidence that you are not on their team – that you are just being negative.
Ideally, there should be a safe environment where you and your colleagues are empowered to raise different points of view.
Here are three techniques to introduce a critical perspective into a discussion, to get a group to take on different points of view, overcome groupthink and think about why a program might fail.
The evidence: companies value positivity and a “can-do” attitude
Being positive is a key trait in society. We want to work with people who are agreeable and supportive of ideas. We know that positivity is required to keep pushing through. Delivering change in organisations is extremely difficult. While confident is a prerequisite, successful project delivery also requires professionals to identify failure modes and mitigate risks. Facing into uncertainty and making educated guesses is part and parcel of change.
There is some recognition in organisations of the risk of overconfidence and incorporating uncertainty into decision making. In some organisations, values will include statements about respectfully challenging or even an obligation to dissent. While there is permission to say things your leader might not want to hear, that is not a guarantee a leader will listen. Even with an obligation to dissent it is still difficult to explain why something might fail without being painted as a resistor.
Ultimately, the reason for challenging ideas is that it increases the likelihood of success. If we can put our egos to one side, then someone challenging our idea means we can adapt it to suit the situation.
1. The playful devil’s advocate
We all know the role of the devil’s advocate. Unfortunately, it is often used in the corporate world as an excuse to say things people don’t want to hear. Often in a tone and style that irritates everyone else.
If Hollywood has taught us one thing, it’s that the devil is deceptively charming and playful. If we’re forced to play the devil’s advocate then we can try to deliver our critique with charm and humour, which can go a long way to blunting any impact on an ego and allow the recipient to listen without immediately switching to defence.
We want to avoid sounding or appearing negative, as that will undermine our insight. In our scenario, I could have made a playful aside about other ideas that ‘always worked’ but fell short. It could have set a tone of mild scepticism and given the sponsor an opportunity to think through the approach. Unfortunately I did not bring my charming devil to work that day.
2. Six Thinking Hats – try a different point of view
In our scenario, the heart of the challenge is getting the leader to adopt a different point of view. The leader’s mind is set in the possibility of success. They have been presented with something that promises the land of milk and honey. One way of switching thinking is to use Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to switch to a different perspective.
The Six Thinking Hats (or modes of thinking) are designed to get us to try a different point of view.
- White – information known or neutral.
- Red – feelings, hunches and intuition.
- Black – judgment, the devils advocate or why something may not work.
- Yellow – brightness and optimism.
- Green – creativity, the possibilities, alternatives and new ideas.
- Blue – managing the thinking process.
If we have been forward thinking and already introduced Six Thinking Hats we could say, “I think we’re wearing our Yellow hats (sunny optimism), what would our Black hat (the devil’s advocate) have to say?” Alternatively, we could step through the Six Thinking Hats process and bring a full range of points of view.
The tricky part to introducing something like Six Thinking Hats is people may already have been exposed to it and discounted it. To introduce it as a new concept, can take a bit of time to explain, which you are unlikely to have in a meeting. It is worth being aware of the technique, especially as it has made wearing the Black Hat famous.
3. Premortem – reward people for thinking about failure
A simpler technique, that sounds modern and gets straight to why something might fail, is the premortem. It was created by Gary Klein, a research psychologist in the field of naturalistic decision making.
A premortem is the opposite of a post-mortem. Rather than find out why something failed once it has failed, the idea is to imagine – using perspective hindsight – why did it fail. The key is to imagine it has failed, rather than why it might fail.
In our meeting with the vendor, the premortem introduces the different perspectives (much like a playful devil’s advocate), it does it with everyone in the room (much like the Six Thinking Hats) and the key is, it is a relatively little used concept so it has newness on its side and it sounds interesting.
- Each person takes the group through his or her reasons why it failed.
- Everyone in the room independently writes down every reason why it failed. This is key, remember from our previous post – the first person to speak in a group dictates the discussion.
- The leader asks everyone to imagine the spectacular failure of the idea/project/program.
I would like to say I was aware of the premortem technique and had it to hand ready for just this kind of situation. Unfortunately I didn’t.
What happened with the solution from the vendor?
I was compelled to raise my concerns about the vendor’s solution, but I failed to shift the sponsor’s perspective and was told, “You’re just being negative”. I beat a hasty retreat.
The solution was implemented, and unsurprisingly, it was not a magic pill. I was rewarded for my failed efforts to change the sponsor’s mind by having to make it usable.