The Conference we’ll never Attend

April 30, 2008 at 11:28 am 2 comments

Here’s the annual conference I’d love to attend:-

“The World Conference on Failure”
20 Business and World Leaders honestly and openly discuss
the decisions and actions which contributed to their significant
business and political disasters/failures/catastrophes.

…but which for obvious(?) reasons it will never be held.

Why would I want to attend this type of conference?

We don’t learn one tenth as much from success as we do from failure. I don’t have anything but life experience to back up that statement, yet I know for certain that at some level it could not be a truer observation about how the world works. Success drives us in a single direction, and while the positive feedback is nice, it doesn’t motivate us to grow and change.

Failure on the other hand is an itch that demands scratching and forces us to explore alternatives.

You could argue that if we study the success of others, then we can emulate them and create our own success. That’s true up to a point, but the real secret of success is not found in learning how to follow a ‘recipe’, but in learning how to respond to a changing environment. When we look at success, it’s easy (relatively) to pick out what they did ‘right’, but much more difficult to understand how they avoided doing the ‘wrong’ things.

By studying failure, it’s possible to explore the specific actions that contributed to that failure, and delve into why those responsible were unable, (unwilling?) to avoid those actions. Learning how to avoid problems, how to avoid the common and uncommon traps, is the skill which enables us to chart our course when the success ‘recipe’ falls short.

What types of failures?

One of the failures which jumps immediately to mind is Motorola’s $6B investment in the Iridium phone which they eventually sold for a mere $25M… the mind boggles at the size of this mis-adventure. The question “How could this possibly happen?” if honestly answered, might actually justify the multi-billion dollar fiasco IF we could use the answer to avoid similar disasters in the future.

Obviously, people have looked at this fiasco and made their observations public, but what would be more informative is honest commentary from the people actually involved in the event. What exactly were they thinking? What motivated them? What honest mistakes did they make?

And… what mistakes did they make, that with 20/20 hindsight they now recognize as totally avoidable – mistakes that were generated not by the facts in front of them, but by the human flaws within them.

This personal perspective on failure is the real value the “Conference on Failure” would offer, it’s also of course, why such a conference will never become a reality.

Admitting avoidable failure isn’t something we do very well, and if/when we do muster the courage to tell the real story, we are immediately the target punishment of some sort, usually in the form of lawsuits.

And courage is necessary if we’re to honestly discuss our failures. I’ve deliberately chosen ‘loaded’ words to describe ‘failure’ when I use terms such as, “disaster”, “flaws”, “fiasco” etc. etc.

Why would I frame the topic this way? Because this is the framework of perspective that we wrap around the stink of failure. Speaking of any personal “failure” is incredibly difficult. Look at “The Room that Eats Speakers” posted a few days ago in this blog. Admitting, as a professional speaker, that I have ‘messed’ up was not done lightly… chances are it will cost me future business. Being honest, usually does involve a personal cost, but the benefits are worth it if others can learn from those mistakes and learn from them.

We can come close to the “Conference on Failure”

We can, when pushed, talk honestly about failure. During the discussion around Y2K, the IT disaster we sort of avoided, (if we can consider a $300B+ expenditure ‘avoiding’ a problem) there was much discussion about how/why we self inflicted ourselves with this problem. There was general agreement that the key component wasn’t technical. It was human short sightedness – there were other good reasons to do what we did – but the real problem was that we, the entire IT industry, didn’t take the long view.

One of the more popular category of TV shows on the Discovery and History channels are those that examine, from an external viewpoint, the reasons behind various types of accidents. From crashing Planes and trains, to crumbling tunnels and towers… each catastrophe has something to teach us.

Perhaps we can’t have the individuals involved in the big events explain what they were thinking, but we can shift some of our attention away from self congratulatory stories about ‘what made us a success’ to the more difficult and telling recollections about ‘what made us fail’ and with some careful attention, some compassion for those courageous enough to talk unveil themselves in public, and a little bit of effort, apply those insights to future endeavours.

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Entry filed under: Change, Communicating, Communications, Leaders, Leadership, Life, Management, Meeting Planner, Presentations, Speaking.

Notes Numbering Seven to a Meeting Planner Forget the Turtles, its PEOPLE all the way down, and up.

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Phil G  |  June 11, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Hey Peter,
    Now that would be a conference that I would pay big bucks to attend!
    When I was an SAP consultant, I worked five implementations with three different consulting firms over six years. The first was a limited success; on-time but with reduced scope and probably slightly over budget. The second was a complete failure that ended up in litigation. The third was successful, the fourth a failure, and the fifth a limited success.
    The mistakes that led to the failures in each project were similar in nature. However, the project teams never seemed to learn, never wanted to accept that they were more likely to fail than to succeed, never evolved. And the emphasis was always on billing hours as opposed to delivering a quality product.
    Talking honestly about failure would be a step in the right direction, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.
    Phil G

    Reply
  • 2. kcowan  |  June 16, 2008 at 11:29 am

    I believe it is deeper than that. The failures are usually the fault of management that does not understand the process they are involved in. If these people could articulate the reasons for the failure, they would not likely have failed in the first place.

    This is why external consultants can sometimes add value, but only if the client is open to their discoveries and feedback.

    Reply

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