About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

14 May 2010

How Can We Fail to Succeed?

Poka-yoke is Japanese for fail-safe. The term was popularized by Shigeo Shingo, who made the notion an integral part of the Toyota Production System. The sense of this is patently obvious: ask ahead of time what could possibly go wrong in whatever it is you are trying to do, and figure out what you can do to keep it from happening or minimizing the damage if it does. An example of a fail-safe device is having fighter planes go to full power as they land on the deck of an aircraft carrier so they can take off again if the catch wire fails in some way.

VUCA is an acronym the U.S. Army has been using for over a decade to describe the world in which we are living. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

In a VUCA world, it is virtually impossible to predict the future. As a result, it is nigh unto impossible to develop strategic plans - including business, career, and life plans - that we can play out to a certain end as we were able to do in a more static world. But, plan we must. Or as the great philosopher Seneca said:
"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable."
To deal with this conundrum you can employ the idea of poka-yoke to fail-safe your plans on the front end. Here's how. The plans you create answer the question:
"How can we succeed in getting from point A to point B?"
Most planning stops there. But to build a fail-safe device for your plan, you must ask and answer a second - and seldom asked - question:
"How can we fail to succeed?"
The best idea on how to answer this question comes from Gary Klein, a research psychologist and author of The Power of Intuition. He suggests that when our plans have been etched in stone, we conduct what he calls a PreMortem. This means holding a conversation in which we look out into the future to speculate on how our plans might meet an untimely demise. Here's what to do in Gary's own words.

  • Preparation. Team members take out sheets of paper and get relaxed in their chairs. They should already be familiar with the plan, or else have the plan described to them so they can understand what is supposed to be happening.
  • Imagine a fiasco. When I conduct the PreMortem, I say I am looking into a crystal ball and, oh no, I am seeing that the plan has failed. It isn’t a simple failure either. It is a total, embarrassing, devastating failure. The people on the team are no longer talking to each other. Our company is not talking to the sponsors. Things have gone as wrong as they could. However, we could only afford an inexpensive model of the crystal ball so we cannot make out the reason for the failure. Then I ask, “What could have caused this?”
  • Generate reasons for failure. The people on the team spend the next three minutes writing down all the reasons why they believe the failure occurred. Here is where intuitions of the team members come into play. Each person has a different set of experiences, a different set of scars, and a different mental model to bring to this task. You want to see what the collective knowledge in the room can produce.
  • Consolidate the lists. When each member of the group is done writing, the facilitator goes around the room, asking each person to state one item from his or her list. Each item is recorded in a whiteboard. This process continues until every member of the group has revealed every item on their list. By the end of this step, you should have a comprehensive list of the group’s concerns with the plan as hand.
  • Revisit the plan. The team can address the two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to discuss ideas for avoiding or minimizing other problems.
  • Periodically review the list. Some project leaders take out the list every three to four months to keep the spectre of failure fresh, and re-sensitize the team to the problems that may be emerging.
"Argue as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong." - Karl Weick
"It often happens that a player carries out a deep and complicated calculation, but fails to spot something elementary right at the first move." - Grandmaster Alexander Kotov
"Anticipation is the heart of wisdom. If you are going to cross a desert, you anticipate that you will be thristy, and you take water." - Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War

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