Necessary fallacy, ignorance, and ineptitude: Why failures happen in your business.

“I can’t get everybody on the same page.”  “She started out strong but then her performance just fell off a cliff.”  “He’s a big help around the office but he’s not actually making management decisions.”  All common problems I’ve heard from my clients.  It’s not easy to implement initiatives  with 100% buy-in–especially across large organizations. Even with aptitude tests it’s impossible to know precisely what an employee’s long-term capabilities will be.  Not everyone is cut out to lead people.  Furthermore there are costs associated with lackluster performance, turnover, and additional trainings.  So when failures happen, many business owners assume ownership of the problem, try a slightly new approach, or settle for less-than-optimal results until such a time that a given problem is exacerbated beyond repair.  Unfortunately, many business owners and managers are not addressing the real issue as to why failure happens in the first place.

In 1975 Samuel Gorovitz and Alasdair MacIntyre published an article entitled “Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility.”  The philosophers intended to isolate the deeper causes of medical error in an effort to understand why brilliant surgeons and teams of surgeons frequently failed, lost lives.  There are, they determined, three reasons why catastrophic failures happen: Necessary Fallacy, ignorance, and ineptitude.

Necessary Fallacy causes failure.  I’d like to surf like Kelly Slater, play chess like Magnus Carlsen, and golf like Good Tiger.  I don’t live near a coast line, I’m not a prodigy, and I started playing golf in my 40’s.  Still, I try hard at each and fail at each on a regular basis.  Necessary Fallacy: failure happens because I try to do something that’s beyond my given capabilities.  I wasn’t born a natural athlete or a genius.  Jim Collins described this as having the right people in the right seats on the bus.  Just because a person wants to be/do function X does not mean that he is capable of excelling in that role.  I’ve seen a lot of outstanding installers become average salesmen and I’ve seen too many people with inherently average communication skills become average customer service representatives.

Ignorance causes failure.  Not knowing how to perform a function or a service–legitimately not knowing–is ignorance.  It’s not a bad thing, it’s an opportunity.  As Gorovitz and MacIntyre point out:

“And since ignorance is a precondition of progress, where there is the possibility of progress there is the possibility of error.  The ignorance of what is not yet known is a permanent state of science . . .”

In other words, failure and mistakes happen because a person or team may simply not know the entire scope of information, skills, etc. necessary to succeed.  Failure due to ignorance can be expected–even tolerated.  Businesses are often overwhelmed with change and the rate and quality of disseminated information may at times be inconsistent.  Additional training may be required.  Improved process management can help.  It is the company’s responsibility to identify ignorance-related errors and to repair information or skills-related gaps that cause failure.

Ineptitude causes failure.  When a person or team willfully and knowingly disregards management directives, cuts corners, skips procedural steps then that person or that team has become inept.  A business owner or manager should forgive ignorance so long as corrective actions are taken.  But as Atul Gawande writes, “If the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly it is difficult not to be infuriated.”  Ineptitude-related failures happen when individuals or teams ignore proven-protocol because of their experience or pride.  Ineptitude happens out of laziness.  Ineptitude is a choice that person makes and it should be managed in to compliance.  Gorovitz and MacIntyre write:

“Willfulness and negligence will arise when those motives which are to be restrained by the external norms of natural science–ambition, impatience, competitiveness, a great anxiety to do good–are allowed to override the internal norms.”

In the United States, roughly 250,000 people die from surgery-related complications every year.  An intense focus on error-reduction has improved this number year over year and death statistics are trending downward around the world.  In so much as surgeons are hyper-specialized experts dedicated to saving lives they’re not perfect.  By understandng the causes of surgery-related failures the medical community has significantly improved.  Business owners want perfectly functioning organizations.  Managers want perfectly performing teams.  But that rarely happens.  Owners and managers that isolate and identify the causes of their failures: Necessary Fallacy, ignorance, and ineptitude–can take smarter corrective action.fallibility

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