Language & Safe-fail probes

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Language is important, no? Well, when dealing with complex domain issues we have found that language is a key factor in helping an organisation get an edge on their challenge. This is especially true when dealing with clients who are altogether unfamiliar with the ‘language of complexity’. I often sense that clients feel I speak a different language, and one of the greatest hurdle’s we’ve had to overcome (especially in South Africa) is learning how to make the science of complexity and pattern management more accessible to an audience who feels the pain of the problem, but may not have the right tools.

I recall a session we were facilitating with a group of scientists from a parastatal here in South Africa that taught us many lessons in the use of language in the complexity space.

The overall project was focused on uncovering the organisational culture drivers of, and barriers to, performance management within the parastatal. Our session happened in the later stages of the project when it was time to develop interventions that were aimed at shifting the patterns.

It was at this point that we introduced the notion of a safe-fail experiment as a way to learn more about the complexity of the issues faced. The thing about complex problems is that they resist traditional intervention approaches. Ideally, you want to probe a problem to uncover it’s underlying dynamics so that you can better amplify or dampen the results of the intervention. So, instead of implementing fail-safe solutions (that will inevitably fail), you approach the problem from a safe-fail perspective. We had one problem though, the discourse associated with an “experiment”… The Gospel of Luke

As a group of scientists they had a particular association with the word “experiment” that included issues of control i.e. you control the conditions in which the experiment is conducted. Also, an experiment has an underlying hypothesis of what the root issue is. Both of these associations are problematic when it comes to ‘managing’ complexity-type interventions.

So, we settled on the term “safe-fail probes”. However, the problem of language associated with the safe-fail process in other business disciplines. The root of this struggle is not simply a language issue (I believe) but rather indicative of a deeper underlying problem with the discourse around success in business.

For example, in the mine safety arena, there is virtually zero tolerance of anything that is not successful in improving safety on mines. Associating an experiment with the word “fail’ creates massive issues that mining managers can’t seem to transcend. The word itself prevents an uptake of the concept.

More broadly, the success discourse is evident in many other business spheres, and it prevents us from approaching complex problems in the most effective way. Our success discourse makes us very intolerant of failure, and more importantly, intolerant of the valuable lessons learned from failure (which is the underpinning of safe-fail probes).

We’ve played around with terminology to see what gets traction. We’ve called them “learning interventions” with measured success, but we still feel we’re missing that great name and term that both describes the essence of a safe-fail probe and that does not get caught up in prevalent success discourses within our businesses.

I wonder if there’s a term that comes to mind for you?