Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Eighteen Debacles

Debacles happen.

Debacles happen.

We have two old sayings that directly contradict each other. On the one hand, we say, “Look before you leap.” On the other hand, “He who hesitates is lost.” So which is it?

I wasn’t thinking about this conundrum when I assigned the debacles paper in my critical thinking class. Even so, I got a pretty good answer.

The critical thinking class has two fundamental streams. First, we study how we think and make decisions as individuals, including all the ways we trick ourselves. Second, we study how we think and make decisions as organizations, including all the ways we trick each other.

For organizational decision making, students write a paper analyzing a debacle. For our purposes, a debacle is defined by Paul Nutt in his book Why Decisions Fail: “… a decision riddled with poor practices producing big losses that becomes public.” I ask students to choose a debacle, use Nutt’s framework to analyze the mistakes made, and propose how the debacle might have been prevented.

Students can choose “public” debacles as reported in the press or debacles that they have personally observed in their work. In general, students split about half and half. Popular public debacles include Boston’s Big Dig, the University of California’s logo fiasco, Lululemon’s see-through pants, the Netflix rebranding effort, JC Penney’s makeover, and the Gap logo meltdown. (What is it with logos?)

This quarter, students analyzed 18 different debacles. As I read the papers, I kept track of the different problems the students identified and how frequently they occurred. I was looking specifically for the “blunders, traps, and failure-prone practices” that Nutt identifies in his book.

Five of Nutt’s issues were reported in 50% or more of the papers. Here’s how they cropped up along with Nutt’s definition of each.

Premature commitment – identified in 13 papers or 72.2% of the sample. Nutt writes that “Decision makers often jump on the first idea that comes along and then spend years trying to make it work. …When answers are not readily available grabbing onto the first thing that seems to offer relief is a natural impulse.” (I’ve also written about this here).

Ambiguous direction – 11 papers or 61.1%. Nutt writes, “Direction indicates a decision’s expected result. In the debacles [that Nutt studied], directions were either misleading, assumed but never agreed to, or unknown.”

Limited search, no innovation – ten papers or 55.5%. According to Nutt, “The first seemingly workable idea … [gets] adopted. Having an ‘answer’ eliminates ambiguity about what to do but stops others from looking for ideas that could be better.”

Failure to address key stakeholders claims – ten papers or 55.5%. Stakeholders make claims based on opportunities or problems. The claims may be legitimate or they may be politically motivated. They may be accurate or inaccurate. Decision makers need to understand the claims as thoroughly as possible. Failure to do so can alienate the stakeholders and produce greater contention in the process.

Issuing edicts – nine papers or 50%. Nutt: “Using an edict to implement … is high risk and prone to failure. People who have no interest in the decision resist it because they do not like being forced and they worry about the precedent that yielding to force sets.”

As you make your management decisions, keep these Big Five in mind. They occur regularly, they’re inter-related, and they seem to cut deeply. The biggest issue is premature commitment. If you jump on an idea before its time, you’re more likely to fail than succeed. So, perhaps we’ve shown that look before you leap is better wisdom than he who hesitates is lost.

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