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Embracing Failure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
February 13, 2015

On New Year’s Eve in a cold and windy New York Times Square, singer Idina Menzel fought to sing the high notes of “Let It Go,” and afterwards was criticized on social media.  Her response?  “I am more than the notes I hit, and that’s how I approach life.  You can’t get it right all the time but you can try your best.  If you’ve done that, all that’s left is to accept your shortcomings and have the courage to overcome them.” (As quoted by Glenn Gamboa, Newsday, January 16, 2015).

Paddock febToo often employees and organizations are judged by their failures, not on their initial, overall efforts or on actions taken as a result of the failure.  There are some professions where we expect perfect performance. Pilots shouldn’t land off the runway. Obstetricians shouldn’t drop newly-delivered babies. Yet even in those cases failures sometimes happen.  For the rest of us, failure generally is not as disastrous, though employees are often led to believe that any failure is unacceptable.

We work, of course, to avoid failure, but when failure occurs it’s important to step back and analyze why the failure occurred. For example, a study found that 68% of IT projects failed.  The primary reason?  Inadequate identification of business requirements. A recent review of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) response to the Ebola epidemic found that the organization was at first dismissive of the seriousness of the crisis and then deflective of responsibility before finally responding.  When it did respond, WHO had insufficient personnel and finances to take adequate action, in large part because it was unprepared to respond to a global health crisis.

W.E. Deming believed that almost all failures were due to organizational issues, not to individual malfeasance or mistakes, and that managers should ask “What about the work system is causing the employee to fail?” Managers, he said, play the essential role in understanding the system and in helping employees know what they are supposed to do.

Organizations may fail for a variety of reasons, among them:

  • They do not have or do not allocate sufficient funding.
  • They have priorities that do not reflect the current social, cultural or economic context.
  • They employ people who are poorly prepared or inadequately trained.
  • They use incorrect practices.
  • They neglect to review employees’ performance and establish appropriate reward or disciplinary measures.

Individuals do fail, of course, in spite of organizational policies and procedures and effective management.  They have sufficient resources, expertise, training and supervision to carry out their responsibilities yet make errors of commission (do the wrong things or the right things in the wrong way) or of omission (failure to take any action or to follow accepted practices). In these cases, when employees fail, disciplinary action is required…as well as an analysis to ensure that there is no reoccurrence of the failure.

Managers must resist the temptation to micromanage as a justly to avoid any individual failure.  According to Bob Behn, micromanagement “saps motivation and undermines morale.” Instead, as Atul Gawande, a physician, writes in The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, managers can use a checklist (much as pilots use a pre-flight checklist) to reduce significantly the chances of something going wrong. This kind of performance management can eliminate performance failures, or at least eliminate the most important ones.

Additionally, managers need to have a plan for involving or informing elected officials and citizens on a continuing basis.  This is especially important in case a failure occurs, because it reduces the element of surprise, more appropriately allocates responsibility and supports quick remedial actions. For example, officials and citizens should not be shocked if a foster care worker fails to inspect a foster home and a child is harmed, if the issue of inadequate funding and staffing has already been raised, possible problems identified and solutions discussed. Officials may justly be distressed by this tragedy and harm to the child is not diminished by the worker’s omission, but responsibility for that harm is assigned more generally to the organization and the government officials responsible for its operation.

Thomas Edison is often quoted as saying, “I have not failed.  I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” A more contemporary speaker, Louis C.K. said, “Failure is the road to becoming a great comedian… Whenever you leave behind failure you’re doing good. If you think everything you’ve done is great, you’re probably dumb.” Or, as Idina Menzel said, “accept your shortcomings and have the courage to overcome them.”

Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who currently lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She can be reach at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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