Introducing Failureship – The dark twin of Leadership

The culture of an organisation is vital to its ability to change and acquire new capabilities so that it can adapt to new contexts. Whilst academics and thought leaders will tell you that culture cannot be changed and is different for each organisation, careful observation will reveal that there a couple of key cultural archetypes when it comes to change in organisations. Like blind men scrambling over an elephant, there are many ways to describe these polarities. Currently I name them a “risk managed culture” and a “failure culture”. Associated with each culture is a set of behaviours. In a “risk managed” culture, we have a set of behaviours that lead to change, a set of behaviours we call leadership. In a “failure culture”, we have a set of behaviours that prevent change and perpetuate the status quo, a set of behaviours we shall call failureship.

Image by KRISTEN FOSTER from Pixabay

“All that change needs to fail is that good leaders do nothing”

Failureship is the set of behaviours that prevent change and perpetuate the status quo. It is a mixture of conscious AND unconscious behaviours that undermine and block change. Failureship behaviours are not the fault of an individual “managers” but a complex interaction with the culture itself. They are a behaviour-plex where one behaviour leads to another which leads to another which feeds back and stabilises the original behaviour. Sometimes they are held in place by an enabling constraint rather than a governing constraint.

An understanding of behaviours in a “risk managed” and “failure culture” and the associated “leadership” and “failureship” behaviour sets can help us better predict the success and failure of a change within an organisation. As most people consider leadership synonymous with leaders, I will refer to “leadership” as “changeship”, the act of leading change rather than leadership which most consider to be the rulers of an organisation.

It is worth noting that failureship often leads to huge success for the individuals but ultimately leads to long term damage of the organisation they work for. The “failure culture” rewards individuals engaged in failureship and although it does not punish those engaged in leadership, they are likely to be undervalued and will seek organisations where they are valued. The result of failureship is the squeezing out of leadership and the eventual dominance of a failure culture and the establishment of a ruler group who are experts in failureship… the failureship. As the goal of the failureship is value extraction, the failureship will ensure that the organisation will appear to be in rude health even though it is unable to change to meet changing contexts. The Failureship will trade long term health for short term gains.

An understanding of failureship will help the following groups of individuals:

  1. Leaders of organisations that are genuinely interested in change. An understanding of failureship enable them to identify colleagues that are consciously or sub-consciously preventing change. It will also help them to understand the behaviour-plexs that need to be disrupted in order for change to occur. Most importantly it will help them to understand how their own behaviour contributes to change and prevents it.
  2. Change agents can use it to identify whether the leadership in their organisation is commited to change or is consciously or unconsciously opposed to it. They can identify whether their efforts to help an organisation improve will result in success, or frustration and failure.

It is worth noting that any organisation consists of many sub organisations. It is possible for different sub organisations to have a different culture, especially if the leadership of the sub-organisation is strong enough to resist the culture of the wider organisation.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

5 responses to “Introducing Failureship – The dark twin of Leadership

  • El Combe (he / him) (@c_combe)

    Great post and a lot of these topics resonate quite close to home right now especially the point of multiple cultures within an organization.

    I often worry that once the so called ‘companywide agile transformation’ happens there is a strange organization wide culture emerging of ‘you are either on the bus or off’ which I find incredibly toxic.

    Agile and agility are not about excluding, we need to value different perspectives, mindset, and ways of thinking about problems to not become guilty of confirmation bias. This manifests in those resisting as no longer being validated or tolerated rather than spending the time to understand their concerns and meet them half way.

    I often find spending time with people who are resistant / afraid or just not getting it to be useful to ensure an organization isn’t just drinking too much consulting / corporate Kool-Aid.

    I love spending time with people who don’t get the change in ways of working who think that their existing ways are superior or less risky etc. that is how I learn and quite often have the chance to get these resisters to be quite powerful allies along the journey in changing ways of working and thinking.

    I don’t see why we should expect someone in a compliance or risk function to be quick to adopt different behaviors and practices without being convinced either through experiment or through data, these are often quite reasonable, intelligent people – they just don’t want to be sold consultant snake oil.

    • theitriskmanager

      If someone is suggesting an organisation adopts a one size fits all approach, even if they are collaborating in its creation, then they are approaching it from the flawed “community of solutions” mindset. Each area of the organisation should understand their particular needs, a “community of needs approach”. Each area of the organisation should own the transformation and develop the approach that works best for them. Part of any transformation is getting people to take ownership and responsibility of their own change rather than simply doing as they are told.

      Tony Grout shared a very deep insight. “Agile approaches do not tell you the solution, they show you the problem you need solve in order to be successful.” Not every organisation has the same problem and so they do not need the same solution. Furthermore, the nature of the problem may need a different approach to reveal the problem.

      And each organisation needs a different approach to engaging with the people to make the change. We used to use the anology. “We all agree we want to go to Parris, but the journey depends on where you are starting from. Some are in Versaille, Some are in London, Some in New York and the ones who want to feel safe are stuck in Paris, Texas because the consultants sold them the Paris snake oil solution”

      The purpose of this series to help “leaders” understand how their behaviour supports or prevents change. If you claim to be an “Agile Leader”, then you need to do more than simply use a few buzz words. You have to model the behaviours and challenge those that do not.

      • El Combe (he / him) (@c_combe)

        Absolutely love this approach and I think ‘transformation’ is just a chance to start working differently, it doesn’t imply you have reached a non-existent holy land. Continuous improvement is the desired effect, not agile in a box done within 2 years nose to rail.

        Sooner Safer Happier talks about a pull model, with invite over inflict and I feel like that is far more human and allows the individuals in their own context to determine a more humane course of action based on their problems, rather than a one size fits all model.

      • theitriskmanager

        I think you would like the work Dan Mezick has done with “Open Space Agility”. It was the basis of the approach I wanted to adopt in my last role but got no support for the approach. I used it at one client and had fantastic results with engagement from a group that had previously been hostile to change.

  • Preyas Raval

    Great Read, would love to read more articles on the back of it!

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