As I See It: Anatomy of Failure
August 30, 2021 Victor Rozek
Decades before the term “woke” became a thing, a couple trained in psychology expanded their portfolio to include corporate consulting. Among other offerings, they taught a seminar called “Conscious Business Practices,” during which they identified three principal reasons why corporations fail.
Their names are Gay and Katie Hendricks, and they are book-writing machines. Those who actually still read books may recognize some of their enduring before-the-turn-of-the-century offerings: Conscious Living, At the Speed of Life, and The Corporate Mystic.
I first wrote about their work over 20 years ago, a time barely recognizable now. And I was curious to see if their findings would hold up in a time of covid-induced economic uncertainly and deep division. Their insights, I found, are worth revisiting and more urgent than they were decades ago. The three main causes of corporate disintegration, as identified by the Hendricks, are: Failures of Integrity, Failures of Vision, and Failures to Harness Intuition and Creativity – unarguably virtues in short supply for which there are pressing needs.
Failures of Integrity are spawned by a resistance to telling the truth. The fear of judgement, the threat of consequences, and the fact that uncomfortable truths are rarely welcome, much less embraced in corporate settings doesn’t make the task easier. But the resistance to speaking up can have disastrous consequences.
In the aftermath of the ill-fated launch of the Challenger, NASA held intensive reviews of their mission preparedness process to determine what was missed. They discovered that during a pre-launch conference call with engineers from Morton Thiokol – makers of the defective O-ring that is believed to have caused the explosion – there were sufficient red flags to stop the launch. The part was suspect. But concerns were largely inferred, communicated with vagary and equivocation. No one was brave enough to emphatically say: “We need to delay this launch.”
“When you dig through the rubble of most corporate disasters,” say the Hendricks, “at the bottom you’ll find an integrity breakdown.” And sometimes the rubble is literal.
Failures of Integrity roughly breakdown into three types of omissions. The first is what the Hendricks call failure to speak the “unarguable” truth, which requires telling the truth without blame or judgement, thus making it immune to argument or rebuttal. (You’ll know your message was received as blame or judgement if the response includes defense, explanation, or denial.)
The unarguable truth is simple, concise: “I’m tired.” Hard to argue with that. Likewise, “I prefer working from home.” “I am vaccinated.” “I refuse to be vaccinated.” “I will not work with unvaccinated people.” “I have no interest in maintaining an RPG system.” “I deserve a raise.” “We have to lay off 10 percent of our employees.” Simple. Direct. Granted, speaking the truth is not always without consequence. But while lying can provide momentary relief, it usually produces long-term tensions. Conversely, speaking the truth may cause momentary discomfort, but offers long-term gratification.
The second integrity breakdown is the failure to honor all of your feelings. This is not an invitation to act out personal dramas, scream at flight attendants, or attack store clerks because you don’t like mask policies. Rather it is an issue of having access to all of your faculties. The Hendricks explain that suppressing your emotions requires “sealing off from your awareness half of your brain and most of your body.” That constriction impacts both innovativeness and productivity because “your feelings are on the same side of your brain that contains your creativity and intuition. So to seal off your feelings is to separate yourself from many of your higher powers.” Ignored for too long, suppressed emotions will express themselves through less pleasant means like tension, stress, illness, and attempts at self-medication through immersion in social media or drug and alcohol use.
The third breach of integrity is the failure to keep agreements. In their simplest form, agreements are about things you said you would do, and things you said you would not do. Agreements assume accountability and logical consequences when not kept. And while agreements such as project delivery schedules must often be renegotiated, the process will be less punitive if the agreement is renegotiated before it is broken. “Truly huge problems ensue,” the Hendricks say, “when people don’t keep their agreements and try to act as it nobody has noticed.” Agreements are essentially casual contracts and within a company they become a measure of personal and organizational credibility.
For colleagues working in a corporate setting, not having access to the truth is akin to a doctor treating a patient whose chart is full of falsehoods: the odds of achieving optimum results are slim. As the Hendricks said more than two decades ago: “Not speaking the truth and not hearing the truth cause more ill health in companies than all the microbes catalogued by the World Health Organization.” And then came COVID-19, and the failure by Chinese authorities to speak the truth at the time of its origin caused incalculable global calamity.
Failures of Vision are essentially an inability “to be comfortable in an imagined future.” A common “vision slayer,” say the Hendricks, is the “tyranny of the possible.” Whatever you may think of their excesses, recently three billionaires brought a vision to fruition that would have been thought impossible just a few decades ago: Personal space travel. But they were preceded by an even greater visionary, President John Kennedy who, at the time of his announced intention to put a man on the moon and return him home safely, presided over a space program with only a whopping 16 minutes of space flight experience.
Failures of corporate vision are legendary. In 1977 the president and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation famously declared: “There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home.” IBM was likewise slow to recognize the potential of the PC market. Steve Jobs tried to sell his computer to Atari and HP, both turned him down. Now, generations of people have never heard of Atari, and HP is a minor player in the PC market. Then there’s Decca Records which turned down The Beatles because they “didn’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” Genius. “If I cling to the notion that something’s not possible,” say the Hendricks, “I’m arguing in favor of limitations. And if I argue for my limitations, I get to keep them.”
Finally, Failures to Harness Intuition and Creativity. This observation came well ahead of the proliferation of AI and data analytics which is pushing intuition aside as a tool of management. But no less an intellect than Albert Einstein believed in its power. “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift,” he said, “and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
The Hendricks believe that in order to exercise that gift you must first get quiet – not as easy as it sounds. We live with constant stimulation and have become uncomfortable without it. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said: “Most of humankind’s problems come from the inability to sit quietly by ourselves in a room.” In the constant static that fills our mental screens, the possibility of the intuitive leap is lost. It will require practice and discipline to restore contact with our intuitive selves.
Time for me to go practice.