Friday, February 21, 2014

Individualistic vs. Systemic Views of Failure

When a failure occurs, people can adopt two different mental models for explaining the reasons for that poor performance.   The "individualistic" perspective looks to blame the "rotten apple" for the failure.  Who made serious mistakes, and what should we do about those people?  In these cases, the emphasis is often on holding people accountable.   By contrast, the "systemic" perspective asks the question:  "Is there a rotten apple or two here, or do we have a bigger problem - i.e., is the barrel itself rotten?"   In other words, do we have cultural and organizational problems that contributed to a failure?   Here, we ask the question:   If we just replace a few individuals, would other new people in those roles behave in a similar manner?  Would they behave similarly because they will face the same culture, environment, structure, etc.? 

In my view, managers make a mistake when they go to the extreme in adopting one perspective or the other.  If you emphasize the "individualistic" perspective too much, you may engage in too much finger pointing.  The blame game may drive out all opportunities for learning and improvement.  Moreover, you may repeat failures, because you have not addressed underlying causal factors beyond human error.  If you emphasize the "systemic" perspective exclusively, you create a perception of a lack of accountability.  High performers question why low performers are allowed to continue behaving as they do without being sanctioned in any way.   In my experience, most organizations make the mistake of relying far too much on the "individualistic" perspective.   As a result, we condemn ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past. 

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