We Tried To Warn You

In Boxes  and Arrows, March 19

There are many kinds of failure in large, complex organizations – breakdowns occur at every level of interaction, from interpersonal communication to enterprise finance. Some of these failures are everyday and even helpful, allowing us to safely and iteratively learn and improve communications and practices. Other failures – what I call large-scale – result from accumulated bad decisions, organizational defensiveness, and embedded organizational values that prevent people from confronting these issues in real time as they occur.

So while it may be difficult to acknowledge your own personal responsibility for an everyday screw-up, it’s impossible to get in front of the train of massive organizational failure once its gained momentum and the whole company is riding it straight over the cliff. There is no accountability for these types of failures, and usually no learning either. Leaders do not often reveal their “integrity moment” for these breakdowns. Similar failures could happen again to the same firm.

I believe we all have a role to play in detecting, anticipating, and confronting the decisions that lead to breakdowns that threaten the organization’s very existence. In fact, the user experience function works closer to the real world of the customer than any other organizational role. We have a unique responsibility to detect and assess the potential for product and strategic failure. We must try to stop the train, even if we are many steps removed from the larger decision making process at the root of these failures.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Business design, Dialogic Design, Innovation Strategy, Organizational strategy, Systems thinking, Wicked complexity

One Comment on “We Tried To Warn You”


  1. Peter, this is a great summary. In one setting I have in mind, ‘being in the right seats on the bus’ is used often by senior leadership with the assumption that the staff in the seats simply need to get in and stay in the right seat. Being resistent to mid-level input, I asked them what obligation the ‘passengers’ had if one of them happened to lean out of the window and noticed the front tire was about to fall off. And what obligation would that person have if, after alerting the driver, they were told to get back to their seats because “…you shouldn’t be standing up or talking while the bus is moving.” Another way: What are acceptable forms of organizational change once the train/bus/avalanche is underway?


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