Disaster lurks everywhere. Buildings collapse. Helicopters crash. Mines explode. It’s only afterward that we realize the role organizational cultures can play in a disaster.
Central to many of these cultures is an inability to admit failure. But if failure is our greatest teacher, why do we exert herculean efforts not to talk about it?
The answer may lie in something a tiny Canadian non-profit is doing that no other organization anywhere has dared.
For the past four years, Engineers Without Borders (Canada) has published the world’s first annual Failure Report. We would do well to follow their lead.
The first report in 2008 was more a pamphlet than a full-fledged confessional. It discussed only “a few of the mistakes” EWB’s field staff made during the construction of roads, wells and schools in developing countries.
Last year’s report grew to 32 pages and four colours and covered 14 different failures, each written up by the person responsible for the failure. We’re not talking here about bridges buckling or boats sinking. Rather, the kind of failures we see every day in corporate Canada: Head office doesn’t stay in touch with the regions; two very disparate cultures for a partnership, only to discover they have wildly different beliefs; or being on the ground but not bothering to learn firsthand from the people who work and live there.
This challenge – to tell the truth, or let the bad news go unsaid – shouldn’t be limited to Engineers Without Borders. What if we were to take this tiny example of utter transparency and see if it would work elsewhere? What if companies had to issue their own annual failure reports? Why not mandate this for the people who already issue reports every year?
What if Canada’s financial regulators mandated that every public company’s annual report had to include a failure report that would detail the 10 most consequential failures the organization faced over the past year? And what if those failures were chosen not by management alone, but by management with approval of the board?
Yes, the lawyers would scream about revealing competitive information, not to mention the potential litigation that would trail each and every confession of failure.
But I have a feeling that the first major company out of the gate with a failure report would garner huge public and shareholder interest. Their failures would be washed away in a tide of goodwill.
After all, our cynicism about governments and corporations only grows because their means and ends aren’t what they profess. And if companies regularly confess to failing, they would end up being just like – well, just like people.
Organizations today profess to be more honest, open and transparent than in years past. Some actually are. But were they pushed or did they leap? Indeed, perhaps reporting failure isn’t just a regulatory issue. Compliance officers groan under the mountains of regulations their companies have to adhere to, and prosecutors are busier than ever.
No, I’d suggest that talking about your failures is one part integrity issue and one part competitive tool. As the world’s first and only annual Failure Report says: “For some, admitting failure can be nearly impossible, never mind learning from it … In some quarters, there is such cynicism … that conceding defeat, even for an instant, is inconceivable.
“Yet, try as we might to eliminate failure from the natural process of achieving any goal, we instinctively seem to know that learning from it has a transformative, irreplaceable, propellant power.”