Failure is a Matter of Timing

On Boxes and Arrows, Part II of We Tried to Warn You! is now up, with several great comments that are worth the visit. Boxes and Arrows is a truly beautiful and readable online publication, one that I recommend as an example of how to do things right. One of the core points in Part II is the notion that we don’t see organizational failures coming because of the long lead times between early (and detectable) signals of trouble and the ultimate re-orgs or product portfolio changes that occur. By the time managers act on the larger failure, so many contributing events will have occurred that most observers will be unable to connect the dots. A section early in the article that explains this follows:

A major difference in the current discussion is that organizational failure as defined here does not bring down the firm itself, at least not directly, as a risky strategy might. But it often leads to complete reorganization of divisions and large projects, which should be recognized as a significant failure at the organizational level.

One reason we are unlikely to assess the organization as having failed is the temporal difference between failure triggers and the shared experience of observable events. Any product failure will affect the organization, but some failures are truly organizational. They may be more difficult to observe.

If a prototype design fails quickly (within a single usability test period), and a project starts and fails within 6 months, and a product takes perhaps a year to determine its failure – what about an organization? We should expect a much longer cycle from originating failure event to general acknowledgment of failure, perhaps 2-5 years.

I’m also hearing personally from a few design/researchers from different design agencies in North America about a different type of org failure – that of following economics and not vision. During the last downturn I noticed that agencies reached a peak of bad performance right before the dot.bomb, mainly due to taking on too much work and pushing rag-tag designer teams beyond their performance limits.

This time around there’s a similar sense of cashing-in, and with the dependency many large agencies have on retail, financials, and adevrtising I think we’ll see the same business cycle. Thinking and feeling practitioners also see that there are times (like this) that the organization’s goals, style, and climate are unlikely to improve in the near term. The designers are the talent, the transformers, not the account managers, and they can always find a better home. Many organizations are not worth waiting out through the next macro or micro failure cycle. Now may be the time to pre-empt the inevitable and follow your own vision.

Explore posts in the same categories: Business design, Information Architecture, Knowledge strategy, Organizational strategy

One Comment on “Failure is a Matter of Timing”

  1. Joe Lamantia Says:

    The temporal separation between decision and outcomes is a barrier to effective evaluation in many contexts. I’m thinking of the research I’m looking at around how designers make ethical choices. In the context of individuals making choices, it seems we use different perspectives or frames of reference to understand situations and events (and evaluate them) based on how temporally distant they are from us; in the distant future, close at hand, or in the past.

    It’s a broad analogy, but I’m wondering if something similar affects the way organizations perceive decisions / events?

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