Process won’t save you from mistakes

One of the benefits of Twitter for me is that I get great pointers for new things to read from the people I follow. One such came a couple of weeks ago from Simon Bostock. He drew my attention to “Bedford and the Normalization of Deviance” — an analysis by Ron Rapp of a recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) crash report. In Rapp’s words:

…after fifteen years in the flying business, the NTSB’s recently-released report on the 2014 Gulfstream IV crash in Bedford, Massachusetts is one of the most disturbing I’ve ever laid eyes on.

If you’re not familiar with the accident, it’s quite simple to explain: the highly experienced crew of a Gulfstream IV-SP attempted to takeoff with the gust lock (often referred to as a “control lock”) engaged. The aircraft exited the end of the runway and broke apart when it encountered a steep culvert. The ensuing fire killed all aboard.

…in this case, the NTSB report details a long series of actions and habitual behaviors which are so far beyond the pale that they defy the standard description of “pilot error”.

As we know from Atul Gawande’s work and elsewhere, pilots are supposed to work methodically from checklists. In larger aircraft, there will be more than one pilot so that each can check the other. In this incident, neither of those safeguards prevented a complete failure to attend to instrument warnings or follow instructions to avoid the crash.

Rapp suggests that the aggregation of errors in the face of clear instructions and warnings is an example of the normalisation of deviance. This is a term coined by an American sociologist, Diane Vaughan, in a study of the culture of NASA that contributed to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. She summarised the concept in a later interview:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety. But it is a complex process with some kind of organizational acceptance. The people outside see the situation as deviant whereas the people inside get accustomed to it and do not. The more they do it, the more they get accustomed.

Vaughan’s work has been developed by others. I first came across the concept in a radio programme in 2010, in which Scott Snook was quoted:

Each uneventful day that passes reinforces a steadily growing false sense of confidence that everything is all right — that I, we, my group must be OK because the way we did things today resulted in no adverse consequences. 

When I tracked down this quote to its source, in Chapter 6 of Snook’s book, Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq (an account of an incident in Iraq in 1994), I discovered that there was more useful detail, which is directly relevant to the growing use of checklists and processes in law firms and elsewhere.

Practical drift between stability and instability

A useful summary of Snooks’s insight can be found in Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, by reference to the diagram linked below.


Snooks’s model describes behaviour in four quadrants bounded by the degree of ‘situational coupling’ and ‘logics of action.’

Situational coupling is described as loose or tight, depending on the extent to which parts of the organisation are free to operate autonomously. The more interdependence there is between different parts of the organisation, the tighter the situational coupling.

Logics of action are described as rule-based or task-based, depending on the primary driver of actions in a particular context. Rule-based actions are driven by checklists, policies, or other pre-determined norms. Task-based actions are more likely to be responsive to the immediate scenario or on local or personal habits — doing whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Snooks’s view is that two of these quadrants are mismatched and therefore unstable — that is, rule-based logics of action are unstable in loosely-coupled situations, and task-based logics are unstable in tightly-coupled situations. The ‘practical drift’ described by the circle of arrows in the centre of the diagram suggests how organisations move through the sequence from stable to unstable quadrants.

Law firm process and normalisation of deviance

How might this apply to the way law firms adopt (or improve) working processes?

The starting point would be a desire to define the nature and content of the policies or processes to be applied across the firm — these might cover working practices, compliance requirements or client-care standards, for example. These norms are set in the ‘design’ quadrant — where there is a common view that the firm needs to work together to achieve a particular goal (therefore tightly-coupled and naturally rule-based).

Once the rules are set, they become the basis for action, even when parts of the firm are working separately from other parts. This is the second quadrant, described as ‘engineered’ because actions are forced to be rule-based rather than driven by the context. Whilst the rules are new, they tend to be followed despite the mismatched nature of the situation. As such, the firm need have no cause for concern (apart from some teams reporting that the situation feels unnatural).

However, because of the mismatch, work in a loosely coupled situation will eventually default to task-based behaviours. This means that in the third quadrant (‘applied’ in the diagram), people will work in a way that feels more natural. They may ignore the wider organisational rules because they ‘don’t feel right’ or because a better outcome (personally or for clients) can be achieved by responding to more concrete or immediate needs.

This is where normalisation of deviance arises. All those involved know what the rules are, but they (tacitly or otherwise) agree to act according to a different set of standards. For the most part this is not a problem. As Snooks puts it, loosely coupled systems are both resilient and fragile. They can last a long time — until an external, possibly random, factor breaks them. This is where the original quotation resurfaces:

Each uneventful day that passes in a loosely coupled world reinforces a steadily growing false sense of confidence that everything is all right — that I, we, my group must be OK because the way we did things today resulted in no adverse consequences.

The emphasised phrase (omitted when I first heard the quotation) makes things much clearer.

Failure (the fourth quadrant) occurs when the system is pushed into a tightly coupled situation. This may happen when work that usually progresses autonomously is forced to take account of actions elsewhere within the firm or even externally. Where there is interdependence, task-based norms no longer work, because the newly introduced elements cannot be aware of the traditional behaviours (whether deviant or otherwise) of the loosely coupled team. In the worst-case (such as that described by Snooks in 1994 Iraq), previously loosely coupled teams have to assume that everyone else is following the rules, and behave accordingly, with fatal or disastrous effect.

Avoidance mechanisms

I think many, if not most, firms could identify situations falling into the failure quadrant. These errors may be minor, but they always have a cost — the persistence of a particular type of mistake-making inevitably suggests deeper problems to clients or insurers. How can they be avoided?

The standard response to persistent errors is to provide additional training and to highlight the importance of the rule-based systems even for loosely coupled situations. As I have pointed out before, this approach is rarely successful. On further reflection, I think a better response needs to be developed with the errant team.

Snooks’s description of practical drift suggests that the problem isn’t simply disobedience to organisational rules — it is that a rules-based logic does not match the needs of a loosely coupled situation. I suspect persistent errors in law firms occur more often in teams that work autonomously, and which are therefore more comfortable using task-based logic to structure their work. As such, then the answer must lie in one of two options.

The first is probably most attractive to firms with an interest in controlling the work people do. This would be to force interdependence between teams across the organisation. If the organisation becomes tightly coupled by default, adherence to common rules would be more natural. There may be additional benefits in such a refocusing of work, and they could make it more palatable, but otherwise it may be a struggle within the normal partnership model.

The second option is to open up a discussion about the way loosely coupled teams work, especially in difficult situations. This might include making work more visible, or clarifying the shared task-based logic used by different teams, so that the wrong assumptions aren’t made. Discussions of this type are likely to be very sensitive (particularly if they are positioned as a response to error-making), and so they probably shouldn’t be undertaken by the firm’s management. Impartial external, but informed, facilitation would be more fruitful. (Of course, if your firm is interested, I can do that.)

Even if no action is needed, being aware of practical drift should help firms understand better why and where their process improvements might succeed (and, more importantly, what might make them fail).

The unknown future of technology

Last week saw the fortieth anniversary of the first commercial passenger-carrying Concorde flight, as highlighted in this tweet by Aviation Week:

Concorde was probably the most well-known product of Harold Wilson’s government’s high-profile science and technology policy during the 1960s. (Strictly speaking, the joint Franco-British project started under the preceding Conservative governments, but much of the work was done under Labour.) That policy was announced in a speech in 1963, whose concluding passages included the following fateful words:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [scientific] revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry. We shall need a totally new attitude to the problems of apprenticeship, of training and re-training for skill.

“The white heat of technology” became a watchword for the Labour governments of 1964-1970. Looking back, it might also be seen as a kind of curse. Some of the highest-profile advances of this era had little lasting impact, or were undone in later years by the kind of outmoded methods and practices that Wilson said should be rejected.

Concorde was one of those disappointments. The development and production of a supersonic aircraft was an incredible achievement, but it was only purchased by the national carriers of France and Britain. Other airlines conducted evaluations, and some went as far as placing orders. All the orders were cancelled over time. Concorde remained in service with British Airways and Air France until late 2003 when it was withdrawn by both airlines, due to low passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs.

Concorde’s purpose was purely to carry passengers faster than other aircraft. This purpose was shared on the sea by another 1960s technology: the hovercraft. Just as Concorde cut the time for Atlantic air crossings, the SR.N4 hovercraft operated by Seaspeed, Hoverlloyd and (after their merger) Hoverspeed allowed passengers to cross the English Channel in a fraction of the time taken by traditional ferries.

In the end, though, not enough people wanted to pay the premium to save on their travel time. The hovercraft service between England and France ran for just over thirty years — from 1968 until 2000. The cost of fuel ultimately made the service uneconomic — especially once cross-Channel duty-free sales were outlawed (like many forms of transport, traditional retail opportunities had subsidised the core service).

The real problem for the hovercraft and for Concorde was that they prioritised the wrong thing. Whilst their progenitors (including the British government, which subsidised both projects either directly or through its management of the transport operators) concentrated on speed, travel became a volume business. As foreign travel became more common, it would be more important for operators to have craft that could service as many passengers as possible. Since the high-speed options tended to have limited capacity, they were much less attractive.

As a result, Concorde was much less successful than the Boeing 747. The latter plane was developed at about the same time, but was far more capacious and flexible in operation. Concorde could only carry a maximum of 120 passengers, whilst the smallest 747 variant carried 480 people. The 747 was also capable of longer flights. Unsurprisingly, the Boeing remains in production (albeit in updated form).

On sea, a similar pattern emerged. Whilst hovercraft services operated, the traditional ferries stayed in service. Although slower, the ferries carried 3-4 times as many passengers and cars.  It wasn’t until the Channel Tunnel opened in late 1994 with a high-speed high-volume service that the sea-borne craft of all types were properly threatened.

This stark retelling of the history of Concorde and the cross-Channel hovercraft would suggest that those investments were a complete waste — the only return was 30-40 years of high-speed travel for a small minority of travellers. But there were other benefits. The most obvious is that the Anglo-French cooperation in developing Concorde was the foundation for the Airbus consortium, which is now the main competitor to Boeing in the production of large passenger and cargo aircraft. Hovercraft technology is not dead — in a modified form, it persists in surface-effect ships such as Norway’s Skjold-class corvettes.

The outcome of these experiments could not have been foreseen. That they were not commercially successful is not a reason for suggesting that they were misconceived from the outset. Their failure arose from changes in the market (the behaviour of the travelling public and the global oil market) as well as governmental action (liberalisation of air and shipping services on both sides of the Atlantic and the Channel, together with closer European integration). I am certain that almost nobody could have predicted the result of this combination of factors, even if they had foreseen each alone. In the end, though, very few unsuccessful ventures produce absolutely nothing of value at all.

And that is where I draw a link with current technology developments in the law. As I have mentioned before, the technologies of the future are not necessarily the ones we predict in the present. That said, there is an incredible amount of technological change and experimentation in legal services at the moment. Some of those experiments will be as successful as the Boeing 747 — changing the way people use the law across the world. Some will be as exciting as the hovercraft for a while, but will ultimately be beached for reasons that are currently unforeseeable.

There are a few important things to bear in mind during this period of novelty.

Experimentation is necessary, which means that some things won’t work out quite as intended. Firms that stick to what they know might be lucky to survive, but they may still be overtaken by those that experiment and fail.

It is possible to try more than one experiment. Unlike other professional services firms, law firms struggle to diversify in the services that they offer — few stray beyond the law — but they can try different ways of working.

Don’t forget the people factor. At a technology level, Concorde and the large hovercraft were a success. They delivered exactly what was promised — fast, safe travel. But they didn’t serve people in the way they wanted. The market chose something different. Likewise, law firms’ may create technology-based services that are successful in their own terms, but fail to appeal to people for some reason. Projects that are driven by technologists (in the broadest sense of the term) are more likely to forget to consider how people (lawyers, clients, regulators, and others) might react.

What is going on elsewhere? This is crucial. The lessons learned from Concorde resonate beyond the companies and teams directly involved in that project. On the other hand, had those people paid closer attention to the development of the package holiday and the work being done in other areas of the aircraft industry, they might have decided to cut their losses much earlier than they did. Likewise, law firms need to be aware of how other firms’ experiments are progressing. Just as businesses need to avoid reinventing their own wheels, they should try not to repeat other people’s mistakes but build on their successes instead.

Innovation: the importance of ‘why’

My friend Mary Abraham has written a characteristically perceptive post about the lessons innovators should learn from the pyramid builders. It is both interesting and useful.

Mary’s lessons can be summarised thus:

  • Innovate by using a series of disciplined experiments that are thoughtfully designed and carefully executed.
  • An experiment that is not examined for lessons learned is a failure — regardless of its actual outcome.
  • As you innovate, collect and share your knowledge to support further innovation by others.
  • Ensure that there is a clear and compelling vision of the intended results of innovation effort, and complement this with clear communication throughout the project.
  • Choose a sponsor who knows the value of second chance in the hands of an intelligent innovator.

Organisations that say they are innovative often display some of these characteristics. Very few manage all of them. In my experience, the one that is most commonly missing is the fourth — clarity of vision. Without this, successful changes can only be haphazard.

Curiously, the need for vision is often ignored (or assumed) in popular accounts of innovation processes. Consider this presentation by Tim Harford, for example.

Harford’s account contrasts two modes of innovation: long shots and marginal gains. Long shots are illustrated by game-changing great leaps forward like the Supermarine Spitfire, penicillin, and the work of Mario Capecchi creating the ‘knockout mouse’. They tend to be fuelled by the vision of their inventors or creators, but that vision fits within a broader social or community goal (improvements in military strength, reductions in disease and infection, or deeper understanding of genetic causes of ill health).

Marginal gains, on the other hand, are exemplified by the approach of Sir Dave Brailsford when he was performance director of British Cycling and team principal at Team Sky:

examining every aspect of performance to extract small advantages, which collectively add up to a decisive winning margin.

Some of the changes that Brailsford prompted are obvious (making bikes more aerodynamic, and so on), but the most eye-catching were things like: ensuring the team had their own tailored bedding rather than using those provided by hotels (so that their posture while sleeping didn’t affect performance the following day); requiring all team members to use hand-sanitisers (so that the risk of infections was reduced); or heated shorts (worn by track cyclists between races to make sure that their muscles stayed in the best condition to ride in semi-finals and finals).

Brailsford himself explains the philosophy in this video.

It is not an accident that the video combines two aspects of the management change that Sir Dave Brailsford brought to British Cycling. The CORE principles that he describes created a culture within the team that supported marginal gains. The culture defined the focus for the team: to do everything necessary to win races. That culture and vision helped people understand why marginal gains were important, and also gave them the means to describe why a particular suggestion would contribute to success.

The idea of marginal gains has become commonplace within organisations wishing to promote innovation. I have seen it used by law firms as a way of prompting people to submit ideas for improvement. Sadly, however, few firms have defined the purpose for which improvement is sought. There is no vision. (The cultural piece is often also missing, which doesn’t help either.)

Without clarity of vision about what needs to be improved, firms using marginal gains as a tool will often find that ideas are generated in a scattergun fashion. When the firm can’t express its own vision, it is left to individuals to find their own. Those individual perspectives aren’t always well-informed, and so can be misleading. Some people won’t be able to identify a purpose at all, and so will be unable to suggest changes (even though they might have some great ideas when prompted). As a result, fewer suggestions are forthcoming and, at worst, some of proposed ideas will pull in such different directions that little or no overall improvement is possible.

How do law firms stay alive?

As the global financial crisis bit, and (in England and Wales at least) the regulatory landscape shifted for law firms, there was a sense that the coming years would see the collapse of a significant number of firms. That doesn’t seem to have happened. There have been a few notable failures (often due to specific local issues, rather than the market conditions), a few mergers and acquisitions, and some stagnation or downsizing. On the whole, though, traditional law firms have survived with often minimal changes to the way they do business.

Beyond economic repairThis fact may be attributable to the generally slow pace of change in the legal sector or to the fact that new legal businesses have still to make a real dent in the market. I think there is another factor that needs our attention — firms survive because people keep them alive.

In technology circles there is a fairly well-known piece of work by Richard Cook of the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm (he previously ran the Cognitive Technologies Laboratory at the University of Chicago). He has studied complex systems for many years, and has distilled his insights into 18 points: How Complex Systems Fail (I was originally directed to this work by Jack Vinson, and I have stored this PDF here until it becomes available again at Prof. Cook’s own site).

There is also a video of a presentation on the topic, which touches on the same points:

Some of Prof. Cook’s points are more applicable to technical systems, but many are relevant to any kind of complex system — including a law firm. Two stand out for me:

12) Human practitioners are the adaptable element of complex systems.

Practitioners and first line management actively adapt the system to maximize production and minimize accidents.


17) People continuously create safety.

Failure free operations are the result of activities of people who work to keep the system within the boundaries of tolerable performance. These activities are, for the most part, part of normal operations and superficially straightforward. But because system operations are never trouble free, human practitioner adaptations to changing conditions actually create safety from moment to moment. These adaptations often amount to just the selection of a well-rehearsed routine from a store of available responses; sometimes, however, the adaptations are novel combinations or de novo creations of new approaches.

For a law firm, I think there are three main ways in which people prevent failure:

  • Clients are often more loyal than economic rationality would suggest
  • Employees make allowance for, and work around, poor law firm systems and working practices
  • Partners continue to invest in firms when other funders might withdraw

The question of client loyalty is bound up with issues of trust that I want to explore in more detail another time. For now, it is enough to be aware that deep client relationships can cause clients to overlook shortcomings in the provision of service. When there is no deep relationship, or where the relationship is controlled by someone other than the person for whom the work is being done, there is a higher risk that bad work will lead to a lawyer or firm being dismissed. Firms need, therefore, to be nervous about procurement-led appointments and about client relationships that are not as sound as they might be. Those are the areas where poor quality work will inevitably lead to loss of income (whatever the economic climate).

Employee loyalty is no different for law firms than it is for many other organisations. It is entirely understandable that, especially in times of economic stress, people tend to stay where they are. It is equally understandable that, whilst in work, they will do everything they can to make things work for them. However, as soon as the market picks up, people will stop making allowances for their firms and will move to better places. That’s why firms should invest in better systems and practices when times are hard. Change takes too long to do it when things get better — someone else will have stolen a march.

If one looks at the firms that have failed over the past few years, one common factor is money. Some overstretched themselves with lateral hires or new property. Some just ran out of funding. Often the plug has been pulled by a commercial funder — a bank or external investor. I suspect that some firms have stayed afloat by depending more heavily on internal funders — their partners. In times of financial stress, the ability to reduce or postpone partner drawings or to make a capital call on partners makes the partnership model particularly attractive. Unlike external funders, partners are probably more likely to throw good money after bad. Their intimate knowledge of the firm (and their possibly misplaced confidence in its future) may blind them to fundamental problems. As a result, the firm may stay alive for longer than it would if it were dependent on the more impersonal decisions of a bank or investor.

It may seem good that partners can keep a firm alive longer than a bank would, but more money doesn’t necessarily make the firm any healthier in real terms — especially if it just goes towards meeting recurring costs. A poorly firm in a bad market may survive because it is in no worse a position than many others, but in a healthy market it is much more likely to be overwhelmed by vigorous competitors.

So, firms may look like they are staying alive, but some of them will be depending on life support provided by clients, employees or partners. A really healthy firm will have a different perspective on these three elements:

  • Are new clients turning to the firm (and staying) because of the quality of the work and service provided? (Rather than the firm depending on a loyal but little-changing client base.)
  • Do people want to work for the firm because it is a joy to be there and it is getting better all the time? (Rather than being kept there by inertia and the fear of a harsh job market.)
  • Can the firm provide a real return on investment, that is attractive to external funders? (Rather than being propped up by the captive goodwill of partners.)

Firms giving a positive response to all three of these questions will be in good shape to survive the upturn. Those that are more hesitant will need to spot where they fall short, find ways of fixing them, and act quickly.

Learning from failure or success

In a round up following KM Australia, back in August, Shawn Callahan has challenged the notion that we learn best from failure. I think he has a point — the important thing is learning, not failure.

Harris Hawk missing the quarry

Here’s Shawn’s critique.

During the conference I heard a some speakers recount the meme, “we learn best from failure.” I’m not sure this is entirely true. Anecdotally I remember distantly when I read about the Ritz Carlton approach to conveying values using stories and I’m now delivering a similar approach to a client on the topic of innovation. Here I’ve learned from a good practice. As Bob Dickman once told me, “you remember what you feel.” I can imagine memory being a key first step to learning. And some research shows it’s more complex than just learning from failure. Take this example. The researchers take two groups who have never done ten pin bowling and get them bowling for a couple of hours. Then one group is taken aside and coached on what they were doing wrong and how they could improve. The other group merely watches an edited video of what they were doing right. The second group did better than the first. However there was no difference with experienced groups.

I wish I could access the linked study — Shawn’s summary and the abstract sound very interesting. Here’s the abstract.

On the basis of laboratory research on self-regulation, it was hypothesized that positive self-monitoring, more than negative self-monitoring or comparison and control procedures, would improve the bowling averages of unskilled league bowlers (N =60). Conversely, negative self-monitoring was expected to produce the best outcome for relatively skillful league bowlers (N =67). In partial support of these hypotheses, positive self-monitors significantly improved their bowling averages from the 90-game baseline to the 9- to 15-game postintervention assessment (X improvement = 11 pins) more than all other groups of low-skilled bowlers; higher skilled bowlers’ groups did not change differentially. In conjunction with other findings in cognitive behavior therapy and sports psychology, the implications of these results for delineating the circumstances under which positive self-monitoring facilitates self-regulation are discussed.

Based on these summaries, I would draw a slightly different conclusion from Shawn’s. I think there is a difference between learning as a novice and learning when experienced. Similarly, the things that we learn range from the simple to the complex. (Has anyone applied the Cynefin framework to learning processes? My instinct suggests that learning must run out when we get to the chaotic or disordered domains. I think we can only learn when there is a possibility of repeatability, which is clearly the case in the simple and complicated domains, and may be a factor in moving situations from the complex to one of the other domains.)

The example Dave Snowden gives of learning from failure is actually a distinction between learning from being told and learning by experience.

Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success. When my young son burnt his finger on a match he learnt more about the dangers of fire than any amount of parental instruction cold provide. All human cultures have developed forms that allow stories of failure to spread without attribution of blame. Avoidance of failure has greater evolutionary advantage than imitation of success. It follows that attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing.

In the burned finder scenario, success (not touching a burning match) is equivalent to lack of experience. Clearly learning from a lack of experience will be less effective than learning from (even a painful) experience. By contrast, the bowling example provides people with a new experience (bowling) and then gives them an opportunity to contemplate their performance (which was almost certainly poor). However, whatever the state of their performance, it is clear what the object of the activity is and therefore ‘success’ can be easily defined — ensure that this heavy ball leaves your hand in such a way that it knocks down as many pins as possible by the time it reaches the far end of the lane. As the natural tendency of learners at early stages in the learning process is to concentrate on the negative aspects of their performance (I can’t throw the ball hard enough to get to the end of the lane, or it keeps going in the gutter), it is understandable that a learning strategy which focuses on success could have better results than one that merely explains why the bad things happen.

In the bowling experiment, no difference was found between the negative and positive approaches when experienced bowlers were studied. All this suggests to me is that we need more work in this area, especially considering learning in the complicated or complex domains. Even for experienced bowlers, the set of variables that affect the passage of a bowling ball from one end of the lane to the other is a predictable one. There is not just one cause and effect, but the laws of physics dictate that the relationships between all the causes should have predictable outcomes. By contrast, much of what interests us with regard to knowledge and learning in organisational environments does not depend on simple causal relationships.

In those complicated or complex organisational situations, I think we can learn more from our own failures than other people’s successes (which I think is the point that Dave Snowden is making). I think Shawn is also right to suggest that we can learn from our own successes too. However, that can only be the case if we take the time to analyse exactly what was the cause of the success. So we need a commitment to learning (which brings us back to deliberate practice, amongst other things) and we need the insight into our actions and activities that allows us to analyse them effectively. I think the will to learn is often present, but insight is often missing when we consider successful initiatives, possibly because the greater distance between cause and effect means that we cannot be confident that success is a product of any given cause. On the other hand, it is usually easier to identify causes of failure, and the process of failure also provides an incentive to work out what went wrong.

As for the quality of the lessons learned from failure or success, I am doubtful that any firm conclusion could be drawn that as a general rule we learn better from failure or from success. However, as we become more experienced and when we deal with fewer simple situations, we will inevitably learn more from failure than success — we will have more experience of failure than success, and other people’s successes are of limited or no value. So, although we can learn from our successes, my guess is that more of our learning flows from failure.

It feels like there is more research to do into these questions.

Detroit: the picture in our attic

I haven’t seen that many of the great American cities. I have visited New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, but not San Francisco, LA, Atlanta, or Seattle. However, I can say that I have lived in one: Detroit. It still remains my favourite. It saddens me greatly that this vibrant town has become a byword for depression and misery.

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In the Summer of 1985, I spent six weeks at Wayne State University Law School, which had an exchange programme with my home university. (This may seem odd, until one adds the information that the University of Warwick was actually sited on the edge of Coventry, the closest Britain came to having a Motor City.) In retrospect, this was a very happy time. I had work to do (mainly researching the activities of the Department of Housing and Urban Development with special reference to the Urban Development Action Grant program), but I also explored the city itself. Not just the civic magnificence of Woodward Ave (the Public Library and the Institute of Arts), but also the commercial opulence of the Fisher Building and General Motors Building in the New Center and the comparatively characterless Renaissance Center downtown.

My recollection of the city, though, is not rooted in these overbearing buildings and boulevards. It was the people and heart of Detroit that I fell for. Even in the mid-80s the beginning of decay was obvious. There were neighbourhoods that had not been touched since being burned in the 1967 riots. Few streets were without a gap where a house had been torched. Even so, everyone I met was unfailingly courteous and welcoming. I walked nearly everywhere, and never felt particularly unsafe. (Although being propositioned by a rather seedy gentleman downtown one afternoon was a bit of a low point. He thought I was Canadian.)

Because of GM and their ilk, Detroit is very much in the news at the moment. Whatever the cost to the American tax-payer (which appears to be the greatest concern to the likes of the Harvard Business School and the Wall Street Journal), the real cost is being felt by the people of Detroit left behind as their more mobile neighbours abandon this great city. As Don Witt, the cab driver in the interview above, puts it:

They [the motor industry] have always been the heart of Detroit — the heart and soul of Detroit. They made the middle class in Detroit. If General Motors and Chrysler go bankrupt, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the city for a while. … You’re actually destroying the middle class of Detroit so that, along with the city, you’re going to have to rebuild the middle class.

[I hope non-UK readers can see the footage. There is an associated story on the BBC News website.]

Bill Ives recently linked to a touching collection of photographs of Detroit’s dereliction. Others have also documented the physical toll wrought by the decline of this city.

I cannot pretend to understand all of this. But I feel that Detroit (along with similar cities) bore the brunt of our prosperity. Just as Dorian Gray stayed beautiful as his picture aged, we have prospered as Detroit suffered. It suited the motor industry to concentrate its activities (almost to the exclusion of everything else) in a small number of locations. As a consequence, the failure of that industry brings about the failure of the city. There was no back-up plan. The diversity of Detroit’s people was not matched by diversity in its industrial leaders. That is surely unforgiveable.

Do we want success or failure?

Reading this interview of Steve Ballmer, I was struck by his answer to the question, “How do you assess job candidates?”:

If they come from inside the business, the best predictor of future success is past success. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s a reasonable predictor.

This “success breeds success” mindset is, I think, mistaken. It is a relation of the thought process that leads to books like Good to Great. Just because a person or business has been successful does not mean that we know why they have been successful. Their previous success may just be a question of luck, rather than good judgment. Correlation does not imply causation — that is just sloppy thinking. (Unsurprisingly, Ballmer recommends one of Jim Collins’s books as a particularly useful text.)

An example of a better approach is provided in this Edutopia video by Randy Nelson of Pixar, talking about the way that NASA selected its astronauts.

Their first search was this depth-based search, and what they found was there are far too many people who were deep — who were very good. They couldn’t use that as a filter. They realised what they wanted was not merely people who were successful, and in fact maybe that was what they couldn’t afford, in their depth-based search. They needed to find people who had failed and recovered.

Those who had failed and hadn’t recovered were not applying — they weren’t around any more (we’re talking about test pilots, for the most part) — that filters out one group!

So that ended up being the way that the astronaut corps was chosen — they were looking for people who had not simply avoided failure, but rather those who had seen failure and had figured out how to turn it into something. The core skill of innovators is error-recovery, not failure-avoidance.

The whole video is not very long, and is full of little gems like this one. It is certainly a much more thoughtful approach to the problem than Steve Ballmer’s.