Tag Archives: Failure Analysis

Learning From the Customer Service Debacles of Others

Learning From the Customer Service Debacles of Others

GUEST POST from Shep Hyken

In 1996 the U.S. hosted the Summer Olympics. I’ll never forget reading about this story. Wade Miller, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, resident, tried to buy tickets to the volleyball match from the Summer Olympics ticket office in Atlanta. When the agent found out he lived in New Mexico, she refused to sell him a ticket, claiming she couldn’t sell tickets to anyone outside the United States. He appealed to the agent’s supervisor, who also believed that New Mexico was not part of the United States, even though New Mexico became the 47th state in 1912.

There is a happy ending to the story. Miller eventually bought tickets, and Scott Anderson, managing director of the games, promised it wouldn’t happen again. He said, “Obviously, we made a mistake, and we want to apologize to everybody out in New Mexico. The good news is that of all the mistakes we could make, this one is at least easily fixable.”

And there is a similar story that happened just a few weeks ago. A Puerto Rican family traveling from the United States to Puerto Rico was denied boarding a plane because their infant child did not have a U.S. passport. Despite the family pleading their case, the most the agent offered to do was refund the ticket or reschedule them to a later flight after they could acquire a passport for their child. The family eventually walked over to the JetBlue ticket counter, where they were told what they already knew: passports are not required to travel between the U.S. mainland and U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico.

Shep Hyken Communication Failure Cartoon

From these stories – and there are plenty more just like them – here are three (3) lessons we can take away:

1. Customer Service Training: Many problems can be avoided with good customer service training. There is the soft-skill side of customer service, being friendly and empathetic. Then there is the technical side that covers anything specific to what the company does, which can include basic geography. That makes me wonder, how can someone in the airline industry not understand the requirements for different countries – or at least know where to go to get the correct information?

2. It’s Okay to Get Help: If a customer and agent are at an impasse that doesn’t look like it can be resolved, the agent needs to know when to say, “I’ll be right back,” and find someone who can help. It’s okay to get help!

3. Recovery is Key: While not part of these two stories, it’s still important to recognize that how someone apologizes, and the actions they take do two things. First, it shows empathy and care for the customer and the situation. Second, when the problem is resolved to the customer’s complete satisfaction, it may renew the customer’s confidence in the company to come back next time.

There are more lessons and examples like these. I wanted to share these two for two reasons: one, they are entertaining examples that not only make you smile but also make you think. And two, it proves a point that I often make: common sense isn’t always so common!

Image Credits: Shep Hyken, Unsplash

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Why Great Teams Embrace Failure

And How to Do Failure Properly

Why Great Teams Embrace Failure

GUEST POST from David Burkus

Failure is feedback. And that maxim is nowhere more true than on teams. When individual team members or the whole team experiences a failure, how they respond can be the difference between a team that continuously improves and enhances performance, and a team that falls apart.

And research backs this up. One of the first studies of psychological safety focused on how teams responded to failure. Amy Edmondson examined the teams of nurses on various wards of a hospital and found that the teams with the highest rated leaders had a higher than average rate of reported medical errors. It wasn’t until looking further that she found the medical error rates were actually the same as other wards…but lower rated leaders who punished failures scared nurses away from reporting them. In other words, the great teams with great leaders embraced failure. And in doing so, they made it easier for everyone on the team to learn from mistakes and get better.

In this article, we’ll review three ways many teams embrace failure on individual, team, and system-wide levels in order to learn, grow, and better perform.

Learning Moments

The first way great teams embrace failure is through learning moments. A learning moment is a positive or negative outcome of any situation that is openly and freely shared to benefit all. And learning moments aren’t strictly a euphemism for failures. A learning moment happens whenever a team member experiences a personal failure and shares that failure with the team along with what they’re learned as a result. The idea is to grant amnesty over the occasional screw-up so long as the person brings a lesson as well. Over time, learning moments become opportunities to discuss how to change one’s approach or put systems in place to reduce failures in the future. But most importantly, learning moments destigmatize failures and move them from being something to be denied at all costs to something that increases performance. Failure is a great teacher—and when team member’s share learning moments they’re reducing the tuition for everyone else on the team by saving them from their own failures.


The second way great teams embrace failure is through post-mortems. A post-mortem is exactly what it sounds like…it’s a meeting to discuss a project after it has died. It’s meant to diagnosis teamwide failures (though many high performing teams also conduct post-mortems after the completion of successful projects as well). The purpose of the meeting is not to find someone to blame, or someone to give all the credit. The goal is to extract lessons from the project about where the team is strong and where they need improvement. When people are open and honest about their weaknesses and contributions to failure, teams celebrate the vulnerability that was just signaled.

Many teams can conduct an effective post-mortem with just five simple questions:

  1. What was our intended result?
  2. What was the actual result?
  3. Why were they different?
  4. What will we do the same next time?
  5. What will we do differently next time?

These five answers help identify the parts of the project that teams need to improve, while keeping them focused on the future and not on blaming people for actions in the past.

Failure Funerals

The third way great teams embrace failure is through failure funerals. As if a post-mortem didn’t sound morbid enough, failure funerals are useful rituals to reflect on failures that happened due to situations outside of the team’s control. Sometimes failures just happen. The environment changes, unforeseen regulations are created, or clients inexplicably decide to part ways. When that happens, it’s important to create moments for teams mourn the loss—but also extract some learning. This can be a short as a 15- or 30-minute meeting where team members share their feelings about the project that failed—and pivot toward what they appreciated about serving on the project and what they learned. Some teams even observe a moment of silence or a toast to the project gone wrong. These types of celebrations not only focus the team on lessons learned, but they encourage future risk-taking and keep teams motivated even when those chances of failure are high. Failure is inevitable—learning is a choice. And the purpose of a failure funeral is to make the deliberate choice to learn.

In fact, each of these three rituals represent a deliberate choice toward learning. Great teams embrace failure because doing so embraces learning. Those extra lessons help them improve over time—and trust each other more over time—and eventually become a team where everyone feels they can do their best work ever.

Image credit: David Burkus

Originally published at https://davidburkus.com on May 1, 2023.

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The Resilience Conundrum

From the Webb Space Telescope to Dishwashing Liquids

The Resilience Conundrum

GUEST POST from Pete Foley

Many of us have been watching the spectacular photos coming from Webb Space Telescope this week. It is a breathtaking example of innovation in action. But what grabbed my attention almost as much as the photos was the challenge of deploying it at the L2 Lagrange point. That not only required extraordinary innovation of core technologies, but also building unprecedented resilience into the design. Deploying a technology a million miles from Earth leaves little room for mistakes, or the opportunity for the kind of repairs that rescued the Hubble mission. Obviously the Webb team were acutely aware of this, and were painstaking in identifying and pre-empting 344 single points of failure, any one of which had the potential to derail it. The result is a triumph.  But it is not without cost. Anticipating and protecting against those potential failures played a significant part in taking Webb billions over budget, and years behind it’s original schedule.

Efficiency versus Adaptability: Most of us will never face quite such an amazing but  daunting challenge, or have the corresponding time and budget flexibility. But as an innovation community, and a planet, we are entering a phase of very rapid change as we try to quickly address really big issues, such as climate change and AI. And the speed, scope and interconnected complexity of that change make it increasingly difficult to build resilience into our innovations. This is compounded because a need for speed and efficiency often drives us towards narrow focus and increased specialization.  That focus can help us move quickly, but we know from nature that the first species to go extinct in the face of environmental change are often the specialists, who are less able to adapt with their changing world. Efficiency often reduces resilience, it’s another conundrum.

Complexity, Systems Effects and Collateral Damage. To pile on the challenges a little, the more breakthrough an innovation is, the less we understand about how interacts at a systems level, or secondary effects it may trigger.  And secondary failures can be catastrophic. Takata airbags, or the batteries in Samsung Galaxy phones were enabling, not core technologies, but they certainly derailed the core innovations.

Designed Resiliency. One answer to this is to be more systematic about designing resilience into innovation, as the Webb team were. We may not be able to reach the equivalent of 344 points of failure, but we can be systematic about scenario planning, anticipating failure, and investing up front in buffering ourselves against risk. There are a number of approaches we can adopt to achieve this, which I’ll discuss in detail later.

The Resiliency Conundrum. But first let’s talk just a little more about the Resilience conundrum. For virtually any innovation, time and money are tight. Conversely, taking time to anticipate potential failures is often time consuming and expensive. Worse, it rarely adds direct, or at least marketable value. And when it does work, we often don’t see the issues it prevents, we only notice them when resiliency fails. It’s a classic trade off, and one we face at all levels of innovation. For example, when I worked on dishwashing liquids at P&G, a slightly less glamorous field than space exploration, an enormous amount of effort went into maintaining product performance and stability under extreme conditions. Product could be transported in freezing or hot temperatures, and had to work extreme water hardness or softness. These conditions weren’t typical, but they were possible. But the cost of protecting these outliers was often disproportionately high.

And there again lies the trade off. Design in too much resiliency, and we are become inefficient and/or uncompetitive. But too little, and we risk a catastrophic failure like the Takata airbags. We need to find a sweet spot. And finding it is still further complicated because we are entering an era of innovation and disruption where we are making rapid changes to multiple systems in parallel. Climate change is driving major structural change in energy, transport and agriculture, and advances in computing are changing how those systems are managed. With dishwashing, we made changes to the formula, but the conditions of use remained fairly constant, meaning we were pretty good at extrapolating what the product would have to navigate. The same applies with the Webb telescope, where conditions at the Lagrange point have not changed during the lifetime of the project. We typically have a more complex, moving target.

Low Carbon Energy. Much of the core innovation we are pursuing today is interdependent. As an example, consider energy. Simply replacing hydrocarbons with, for example, solar, is far more complex than simply swapping one source of energy for another. It impacts the whole energy supply system. Where and how it links into our grid, how we store it, unpredictable power generation based on weather, how much we can store, maintenance protocols, and how quickly we can turn up or down the supply are just a few examples. We also create new feedback loops, as variables such as weather can impact both power generation and power usage concurrently. But we are not just pursuing solar, but multiple alternatives, all of which have different challenges. And concurrent to changing our power source, we are also trying to switch automobiles and transport in general from hydrocarbons to electric power, sourced from the same solar energy. This means attempting significant change in both supply and a key usage vector, changing two interdependent variables in parallel. Simply predicting the weather is tricky, but adding it to this complex set of interdependent variables makes surprises inevitable, and hence dialing in the right degree of resilience pretty challenging.

The Grass is Always Greener: And even if we anticipate all of that complexity, I strongly suspect, we’ll see more, rather than less surprises than we expect.   One lesson I’ve learned and re-learned in innovation is that the grass is always greener. We don’t know what we don’t know, in part because we cannot see the weeds from a distance. The devil often really is in the details, and there is nothing like moving from theory to practice, or from small to large scale to ferret out all of the nasty little problems that plague nearly every innovation, but that are often unfathomable when we begin. Finding and solving these is an inherent part of virtually any innovation process, but it usually adds time and cost to the process. There are reasons why more innovations take longer than expected than are delivered ahead of schedule!

It’s an exciting, but also perilous time to be innovating. But ultimately this is all manageable. We have a lot of smart people working on these problems, and so most of the obvious challenges will have contingencies.   We don’t have the relative time and budget of the Webb Space Telescope, and so we’ll inevitably hit a few unanticipated bumps, and we’ll never get everything right. But there are some things we can do to tip the odds in our favor, and help us find those sweet spots.

  1. Plan for over capacity during transitions. If possible, don’t shut down old supply chins until the new ones are fully established. If that is not possible, stockpile heavily as a buffer during the transition. This sounds obvious, but it’s often a hard sell, as it can be a significant expense. Building inventory or capacity of an old product we don’t really want to sell, and leaving it in place as we launch doesn’t excite anybody, but the cost of not having a buffer can be catastrophic.
  2. In complex systems, know the weakest link, and focus resilience planning on it. Whether it’s a shortage of refills for a new device, packaging for a new product, or charging stations for an EV, innovation is only as good as its weakest link. This sounds obvious, but our bias is to focus on the difficult, core and most interesting parts of innovation, and pay less attention to peripherals. I’ve known a major consumer project be held up for months because of a problem with a small plastic bottle cap, a tiny part of a much bigger project. This means looking at resilience across the whole innovation, the system it operates in and beyond. It goes without saying that the network of compatible charging stations needs to precede any major EV rollout. But never forget, the weakest link may not be within our direct control. We recently had a bunch of EV’s stranded in Vegas because a huge group of left an event at a time when it was really hot. The large group overwhelmed our charging stations, and the high temperatures meant AC use limited the EV’s range, requiring more charging. It’s a classic multivariable issue where two apparently unassociated triggers occur at once.   And that is a case where the weakest link is visible. If we are not fully vertically integrated, resilience may require multiple sources or suppliers to protect against potential failure points we are not aware of, just to protect us against things we cannot control.
  3. Avoid over optimization too early. It’s always tempting to squeeze as much cost out of innovation prior to launch. But innovation by its very nature disrupts a market, and creates a moving target. It triggers competitive responses, changes in consumer behavior, supply chain, and raw material demand. If we’ve optimized to the point of removing flexibility, this can mean trouble. Of course, some optimization is always needed as part of the innovation process, but nailing it down too tightly and too early is often a mistake. I’ve lost count of the number of initiatives I’ve seen that had to re-tool or change capacity post launch at a much higher cost than if they’d left some early flexibility and fine-tuned once the initial dust had settled.
  4. Design for the future, not the now. Again this sounds obvious, but we often forget that innovation takes time, and that, depending upon our cycle-time, the world may be quite different when we are ready to roll out than it was when we started. Again, Webb has an advantage here, as the Lagrange point won’t have changed much even in the years the project has been active. But our complex, interconnected world is moving very quickly, especially at a systems level, and so we have to build in enough flexibility to account for that.
  5. Run test markets or real world experiments if at all possible. Again comes with trade offs, but no simulation or lab test beats real world experience. Whether its software, a personal care product, or a solar panel array, the real world will throw challenges at us we didn’t anticipate. Some will matter, some may not, but without real world experience we will nearly always miss something. And the bigger our innovation, generally the more we miss. Sometimes we need to slow down to move fast, and avoid having to back track.
  6. Engage devils advocates. The more interesting or challenging an innovation is, the easier it is to slip into narrow focus, and miss the big picture. Nobody loves having people from ‘outside’ poke holes in the idea they’ve been nurturing for months or years, but that external objectiveness is hugely valuable, together with different expertise, perspectives and goals. And cast the net as wide as possible. Try to include people from competing technologies, with different goals, or from the broad surrounding system. There’s nothing like a fierce competitor, or people we disagree with to find our weaknesses and sharpen an idea. Welcome the naysayers, and listen to them. Just because they may have a different agenda doesn’t mean the issues they see don’t exist.

Of course, this is all a trade off. I started this with the brilliant Webb Space telescope, which is amazing innovation with extraordinary resilience, enabled by an enormous budget and a great deal or time and resource. As we move through the coming years we are going to be attempting innovation of at least comparable complexity on many fronts, on a far more planetary scale, and with far greater implications if we get it wrong. Resiliency was a critical part of the Webb Telescopes success. But with stakes as high as they are with much of today’s innovation, I passionately believe we need to learn from that. And a lot of us can contribute to building that resiliency. It’s easy to think of Carbon neutral energy, EV’s, or AI as big, isolated innovations. But in reality they comprise and interface with many, many sub-projects. That’s a lot of innovation, a lot of complexity, a lot of touch-points, a lot of innovators, and a lot of potential for surprises. A lot of us will be involved in some way, and we can all contribute. Resiliency is certainly not a new concept for innovation, but given the scale, stakes and implications of what we are attempting, we need it more than ever.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl

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Learning from Failure

How to Embrace Risk and Succeed in Innovation

Learning from Failure

GUEST POST from Art Inteligencia

Innovation requires individuals and organizations to not only recognize opportunities for development but also the risks involved in potential failure. The key to successful innovation is learning to embrace these risks, as failure often provides invaluable opportunities to grow and improve.

For many people, failure can be seen as a cause of embarrassment, or a sign of shame. However, history shows us that for ambitious and creative problem-solvers, failure often leads to success. Many famous innovations, from penicillin to the light bulb, were the product of multiple failed experiments and experiences. It can be said that successful innovators accept failure as an essential part of the challenge, with each roadblock providing an opportunity to re-evaluate, re-calibrate and eventually succeed.

The following case studies demonstrate how failure can be embraced in order to succeed in innovation.

Case Study 1 – Apple’s First Foray Into Home Computing

In 1979, Apple Computer Inc. released the Apple II, one of the very first consumer-level home computers. Following their success, Apple felt inspired to launch a new product, the Apple III. Unfortunately, due to a flaw in the design, the product was met with customer disappointment, especially compared to their first success. Rather than be disheartened by this failure, the team instead learned from their experience and created the famous Macintosh computer in 1984. Apple had taken the risk to build a new product, and in doing so, learned valuable lessons about hardware and software integration through their mistake, eventually leading to the invention of the Macintosh.

Case Study 2 – Gatorade’s Introduction of Crystal Light

In 1983, Gatorade, a company known for their sporting drinks, decided to create a sweetened drink for non-athletic types. Pitched as an excellent source of vitamins, the Gatorade Crystal Light was designed as a dietary beverage for the active lifestyle. Unfortunately, due to its overly sweet flavor, unfavorable packaging, and ignored target market, the product flopped compared to their existing product. Confronted with this failure, Gatorade instead chose to analyze market research and completely revamp their product. After two years, they re-launched the product with a more natural flavor, sustainably sourced ingredients, and a lighter label. This new version of the product was much more successful and is still available in stores today.


Both of these examples demonstrate that failure is an essential component of innovation, and can be a crucible for improvement. Failure teaches us to recognize which ideas and approaches were successful, and what mistakes to avoid in the future. Furthermore, failure pushes us to remain creative and ambitious, as it continually encourages us to try new things and think differently.

Ultimately, the ability to accept failure and adjust ideas and strategies based on customer feedback is key to successful innovation. As we continue to identify opportunities for increased growth and development, we must approach each hurdle with the understanding that mistakes are necessary, and often lead to learning and improvement. The key is to not be sidelined by failure, but embrace it for all it’s worth.

Image credit: Pexels

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