Resilience Engineering #28: Driving Towards Failure – Maladaptation

by Gary Monti on January 5, 2012

Being on the lookout for potential failure is one of a leader’s primary functions. So what does one look for when in the middle of a project? How do you maintain clear thinking so the right changes can be made? Here are some guidelines that can help.

Patterns of Maladaptation

Woods and Branlat recommend looking for three distinct patterns:

  1. Decompensation;
  2. Working at cross-purposes, and;
  3. Getting stuck in outdated behaviors.


This is when there is an over-reliance on teams being able to deal with problems. Drift, a topic covered in previous blogs, falls into this category. The most common example is over-reliance on overtime. When success occurs with chronic use of overtime, especially with salaried people getting no extra compensation, there may be blindness to the fact the team is marching towards burnout.

Working at cross-purposes. This behavior can be seen when local decisions are made without regard for the ripple effect on the rest of the project. A common example is concurrent engineering. With concurrent engineering serial activities are put at risk by putting them partially or completely in parallel. For example, Activity B should not begin until its predecessor, Activity A, is 100% complete. Because of time pressures, though, B begins prior to A’s completion.

The working assumption is prior to starting any work estimates and strategic plans are sufficiently adequate that the B team can be comfortable that the A team’s deliverable will work as expected. The problem is, especially with complex systems, there can be a myriad of small decisions made by both teams that the interface between the two teams’ work simply falls apart. An oversimplified example would be making a nut and bolt. Both do a perfect job but fail to realize one is using standard threads while the other is using metric. This occurred with one of the Mars orbiters. Calculations for breaking thrust to decelerate and bring the satellite into orbit were calculated in metric by one team. The thrust order was given in standard by another team – an order of magnitude too great. The whole time both teams were naively comfortable because they double-checked the precision of the number without asking each other what system of force application was used.

Getting stuck in outdated behaviors. A good example of this is Motorola’s loss of the cell phone market. They delayed entering the digital cell phone market because they dominated the analog cell phone market. At the time over 90% of the market was analog so Motorola saw no reason to waste effort on a fringe device. Enter Nokia and things changed rapidly and dramatically.

Patterns of Maladaptation

So what to do? Consider having routine assumption analysis meetings. “What-if” with the team and stakeholders. Bring the assumptions to the foreground. Pound on them! Connect them! Try to get as freewheeling a discussion going as possible to see what the limits are. Put probabilities on the possibilities and see if your project plan will hold up. Determine what change orders might be needed to position the project for success.

Sustaining this type of discussion among the team and stakeholders will maintain sensitivity to what is going on. This means something may be detected that is critical but failed to be part of the initial conversation. At this point the odds of success just might start stacking in your favor because your vision is getting sharper and your thinking is getting clearer.

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