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Breaking the Fad-Failure Cycle

David Straker

-- The pattern of failure -- The four pressures --
-- Breaking the cycle -- And so the cycle repeats --


There is a pattern of failure within many businesses where honest attempts to implement new approaches repeatedly fail. Studies of unsuccessful attempts to implement TQM, Reengineering and other failures regularly come up with the depressing figure that around 80% of all such efforts fail.

The pattern of failure

The patterns of failure are so common that the following mock-process has been doing the rounds for years. We laugh and feel uncomfortable because it is tragically familiar to many of us.


 1. Enthusiasm for the goal.
 2. Disillusionment with the progress.
 3. Search for the guilty.
 4. Persecution of the innocent.
 5. Praise for the non-participants.


Why does this happen? The answer is hinted at in this process, and can be explained further by four pressures that act on managers who, like everyone else, simply do their best to handle these forces on them. The result of these pressures is a cycle of fads and failures.

Figure 1. The Fad-Failure Cycle


For companies to break out of this destructive spiral requires two things to happen. The first step is simply to recognise what is happening, and the primary aim of this paper is to help this realisation. The second step is to break this ‘Vicious Cycle’ as it is sometimes called, and replace it with a ‘Virtuous’ one.

The four pressures

The Fad-Failure Cycle above shows the four pressures that act on managers in these situations.

Pressure to improve

Business managers are under constant pressure to decrease costs and increase sales in order both to stay in business and to deliver value to demanding shareholders. Competitors provide additional pressure as everyone strives to sell better products and services for lower costs.

Pressure to adopt

When a new approach appears that promises much, it gives hope for potential improvements that relieve the pressure to improve. It also triggers a fear that competitors may also use this approach to gain advantage. The overall approach is a felt pressure to at least try out the new approach.

Pressure to deliver

The cost and expectations of the new approach now is added to the pressure to improve, and the new approach has a limited time in which to succeed. A major problem here is that, by definition, nobody is expert on the new approach. Early successes may be gained, but this is often due more to the initial energy and the interest of early adopters than to a widespread and sustainable understanding of how the new approach should be used.

Pressure to explain

Over the longer term, impatience and lack of expertise leads to various problems and the programme falls into disrepute. Some firms now resort to wasteful blame and recrimination, and the method itself typically falls into disrepute. The pressure to improve does not go away and the cycle begins again.

The Danger Zone

The problem starts in the danger zone in the bottom right corner of Figure 1. Uncertainty about the approach leads to people holding back on their commitment to it. Despite a limited expertise, work ploughs ahead full-steam. The result is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy of limited success and subsequent collapse.

Breaking the Cycle

To break the Fad-Failure Cycle, a new approach is needed which focuses on success through clear understanding rather than success through blind hope. For this to work, the cycle must be changed from where the pressure is for quick results at any price to the focus is on sustainable value based on real understanding.


Figure 2. The Understanding-Succeeding Cycle


From 'Pressure to adopt' to 'Pressure to learn'

The first change in the cycle when a new approach becomes apparent is not a headlong dive into blind adoption but a more careful approach whereby the real pressure is to learn about how the approach really works, developing real expertise and hence identifying how it may be successfully integrated into the company.

This approach does not mean a long and leisurely investigation. The pressure to improve does not go away, making the investigation a matter of great urgency. A critical aspect in this is to manage the commitment of the company and its senior officers through authentic engagement that acknowledges initial ignorance and presses for sustained improvement.

From ‘Pressure to deliver results’ to ‘Pressure to deliver value’

A pressure to deliver results leads to just that: results that can be reported as 'proof of success', but which may be based on obvious problems and limited real understanding. A focus on sustainable value may start with limited results, but real understanding increases in leaps and bounds. As incremental learning decreases, results escalate to sustainably higher levels.


Figure 3. Real learning and escalating value


From ‘Pressure to explain’ to ‘Pressure to spread knowledge’

In the blind fad approach, when failure sets in, fingers start pointing and the focus turns to value-less blaming and witch-hunts. With a sustainable approach, failure is treated as an opportunity to learn and to avoid repeating that particular piece of history. The real pressure here is to multiply the learning by spreading it throughout the company, including what works, what does not work, and why.

And so the cycle repeats

If you succeed in adopting the new approach, the story is not over, but at least you live to fight another day. With an approach that focuses on effective and applied learning and understanding, you will have a far greater chance of jumping the S-curves of change to repeat your success and so create a Virtuous Cycle of success.


Figure 4. Repeating the cycle


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