Towards a Self-Healing Organization

Success is not final, Failure is not fatal

… It is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

There’s been a trend in technology to stop treating failures as critical, emergency exceptions to be avoided at all costs, and to start treating them as a natural and expected part of operations.

While the approach feels backwards — perhaps even unethical to be releasing products that can fail to customers — it’s had a hugely positive impact on the technology available to us. It is, for example, a key principle behind how Cloud technology works. And the way today’s top internet apps are built.

It turns out that designing systems to automatically detect and handle failures is significantly less expensive then going to extraordinary lengths to try to prevent any errors from happening in the first place. It means the time that would have been spent in prevention can now be spent creating more value. It means happier, more productive employees who can spend their time creating new features instead of fire fighting problems in old ones.

And the result, gloriously, is a vastly improved experience as customers are rarely exposed to issues in a system that’s able to automatically and seamlessly handle them “under the hood” without their notice.

No Plan Survives 1st contact with Reality

I see a parallel in how our organizations treat everything not going according to our plans that we laid out so nicely at the start of each fiscal year as “failures.” We spend more energy ensuring that we’re on track with plans then we do monitoring our environment for changes and opportunities.

We run our organizations with the assumption that everything will go as expected. That our plans will work out as anticipated. We’ll deliver what we planned to deliver. Sell what we planned to sell. That our markets, customers, partners, competitors, employees will continue operating as we expect.

We deliver our new product, three years in the making… and nobody wants it because the world has changed while we were busy creating it.

A company from a different industry blindsides us by entering our market with a product that effectively renders ours obsolete.

New players create tighter markets for talent that cause us to lose key employees. Companies in our supply chain go out of business. Financial, societal, and political shifts change our customer’s priorities, needs, and interests…

The assumption that all will go according to plan makes as much sense as assuming that technology will never fail.

Stop Dummy Proofing so we can be smart

What would our organizations look like if we changed our mindset? If we designed our organizations with the understanding that change and unexpected occurrences were the norm, rather than the exception? And, with this understanding, engineered them to be self-healing and indestructible — rather than flawless.

Perhaps we’d stop “dummy proofing” everything by trying to define it all up front so that we could, instead, make smart decisions about things as they arise. Considering what makes the most sense for the company given the current conditions, even if it means derailing our plans.

Perhaps we’d prioritize doing the right thing over staying on plan. Rewarding people for doing what’s best for the company over only rewarding them with bonuses and promotions when they hit their quotas and meet their metrics because they dutifully stuck with the original plan even when it no longer made sense for the company to do so.

Perhaps we’d move decision making down to the people who are doing the work so they can respond appropriately to what’s happening. Rather than perpetuating the myth of the lone genius at the top who has all the answers. With the worker bees beneath them there solely to do the genius’s bidding — not to question it.

Perhaps we’d continuously/actively monitor our environment in search of opportunities to improve our plan, rather than hoping that nothing changes between now and the next quarter and then continuously fire fighting to work around unexpected changes that get in the way of our initial plans.

The “Safe Path” is no longer a safe option in a fast-moving world

We can choose to stay the safe path. Stick to our well thought out annual plans and hope for the best because, at least, we all know where we’re going. Even as we see the competition race past us.

Or we can create an environment that makes it possible to try new things. One that expects divergence from the plan in exchange for better options. One where we’re rewarded for doing what is best for the company over hitting vanity metrics. One where it’s okay when we try something and it doesn’t work out because that’s how things work in a fast-moving world.

You can’t ever know for sure what will happen when you’re taking chances and doing things that haven’t been done before. And so, of course, we have mechanisms in place to continuously monitor and adjust accordingly.

Because the important thing is not that we’re doing everything flawlessly. The important thing is that we’re continuing to move forward along with – or even ahead of – the world around us. Once we’ve started, we can adjust to whatever is thrown in our way – and land some place considerably more exciting then solely what lies in the imagination of our lone genius at the top.

And the organization that is truly able to continually adapt to it’s environment is the organization that becomes indestructible.

Because as Charles Darwin… or an unnamed management textbook (depending on which part of the Internets you believe) said…

It is not the strongest that survive. Nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Charles Darwin (maybe)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *