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Successful Failure

June 15, 2009

The best laid plans … Lately, I have been deeply involved in developing and assessing plans for managing emergencies and maintaining government operations in the event of some calamity or another. These efforts have caused me to wonder whether our typical approach to planning inevitably leads us to fail.

Most planning efforts start with an assumption that something is wrong or at the very least that something needs to be done. The plan is a pattern or process intended to see the endeavor through successfully. By starting with a vision of success, we miss important opportunities to learn from our failures, especially when our plans seek to take us in new directions or down untrammeled paths.

My friend and bestselling author Gary Klein (The Power of Intuition, 2004; Sources of Power, 1999; and Decision-making in Action, 1993) has identified a much more robust approach that he calls the pre mortem exercise. Instead of assuming we will succeed, Gary recommends that we assume our approach has failed miserably, that we’ve cratered, that we have not only failed, but failed spectacularly–real front page news.

Most of the time, Gary notes, we can find plausible explanations for this presumed failure even when we think we have done an exceptional job planning to succeed. Most of the time, the failures have to do with problems inside our organization or in our appreciation of or response to the environment that we either cannot fix or have failed to acknowledge.

Too often, in the real rather than imagined aftermath of a program failure, we look for someone to blame, rather than a way to improve. Backcasting from a presumed failure gives us the opportunity to do what we already do well, learn from mistakes, only this time we don’t have to wait until we make them to pick up the pieces and start over again to succeed.

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