Failure is seldom a preferred outcome or a selected destination. When someone tells you to “go straight to hell” they may be hoping you follow, but if you have any brains about you, you never will. Failure is a place to which you get only by mistake and usually not along a straight line. You get there by meandering. By not having a direction you could follow which would lead to success.

In the early 80’s a colleague and I conducted a study of “failed school districts”, most of them large and urban, to help the Department of Education understand how they got that way. We came up with four things all districts engaged in and which formed part of their organizational culture. I was thinking recently how timely these elements of failure remain and how much they apply to post-secondary education today.

Fear of innovation was number one. In a field (K-12 education) where most new things are adopted with little evidence that they work, these districts not only did not take innovation beyond “pilot program” levels, but were actually afraid of the consequences of failing at doing something new and different.

This fear was coupled with an inflated administrative (or leadership) self-concept which reflected itself in the organization’s confidence in their past.  Typically these were long standing administrations, which had experienced little change over decades and looked back to times of trouble in which they did nothing and the problem went away and were confident that this too would pass.

Third was what we called the singularity principle. Organizations like to say that “this is not for us, we are different” and they are not and it is. They say “this approach might work in small organizations but we are the (first, second, third or fourth) largest school district in the nation, it wouldn’t work here.” This singularity is a myth, a powerful one, to which the corporate family subscribes. This denial was the most populated of all administrative views, that is more people in the culture would be willing to say “we are different” than feared innovation or expressed confidence in their past.

And finally, the fourth element of failure comes up when you have already failed or are about to fail but someone gives you financial support to keep going. We called that subsidy of operating losses. The new money is supposed to be used to fix the problem, place the organization in a new direction but it seldom does, once the fiscal imperative is removed, people go back to business as usual. A good number of dead organizations are still moving around because someone is paying for it.

This last element of failure is also present in Capitalized Universities (CU’s). With so much capital available to operate, they very often throw good money after bad. Their reasons are different but the outcome is the same. The failed practice stays alive, on life support and then stops when the life support is removed.

The same year that we completed our study of failure (1982) Peters and Waterman published a book about corporate success (the opposite of my study) and they called it “In Search of Excellence.” It sold millions of copies. My own study of failure was presented to the Department of Education and no one paid any attention to it and no one offered to have us write a book, or deliver a lecture. Most people we told what we had done would say, “but why study failure?”

The answer is, of course, because we learn nothing from success, we only learn from failure. But failure, it turns out, is not sexy and it is even slightly un-American. In the culture of organizations, executives like doctors have for centuries, bury their failures.

It is curious that within a decade of the publication of In Search of Excellence, by 1992, only one fifth of the companies remained “excellent” and four fifths had badly underperformed. This outcome had nothing to do with the authors quality of data or analyses. It had to do with the assumption that the reasons for success can be measured, explained and duplicated. That, in my experience is a false assumption. Success happens as a system, interacting with other systems, known and unknown and even unknowable. But failure leaves a trace, the footprints of those who meander to it.

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