Research/Development magazine, May 1976

In the R&D world it's "To the loser belong the spoils" (if you play your cards right). Our expert on getting ahead tells how, when failure strikes, you can salvage your career

The Successful Technocrat 3: The law of failure

Archibald Putt

In earlier installments (January, March) we have seen how a person can rise in the technical hierarchy by having the right amount of incompetence or by artificially adding crises to compensate for his own excessive perfection. But what about the person with more than the desired amount of natural imperfections? Can a person succeed if his own incompetence prevents him from staying below the maximum tolerable crises level?

Fortunately for most, the answer is yes. There is hope of promotion even for the truly incompetent. However, a good appreciation is needed of the Law of Failure:

Technology abhors little failures
but rewards big ones.

Consider, for example, the problem faced by two corporate officers trying to select a manager for an important development project. The first person under consideration managed three minor projects in the past and each one failed. Such a person is clearly not the right choice! The second person has successfully managed several small projects and is thus a very good candidate. The third person, however, had managed a project that became one of the largest technical failures in the history of the company. As a result, he had greater technical management experience than either of the other candidates and had, no doubt, learned a great deal from the failure.

The corporate officers had the wisdom to know that failure in high-technology projects is frequently unavoidable. So, after due consideration, they selected the third candidate to manage the new project.

Seems unlikely? Not at all! When management is forced to choose between a person with demonstrated successes in small projects and a person with a. demonstrated failure in a large project, it more often than not opts for the large failure.

For the ambitious technocrat, the Law of Failure provides an obvious course of action that is summarized by a corollary to the law: If you must fail, fail big. An important refinement to this corollary is knowing the optimum timing for big failures. The mathematics for this is quite difficult, but the resultant curve (in the accompanying figure) can be discussed simply. Curve A is the optimum strategy for introducing crises; it was discussed in an earlier installment. Curve B shows what to do if you find yourself unavoidably too far above curve A.

If one's level of crises exceeds two-thirds of the dismissal level before time to (when the earliest promotion might be expected) quick action is needed. New crises should be introduced as rapidly as possible in order to pass quickly through the zone of minor failure. Every effort should be made to exceed the major failure level in a time less than 2to. Once a person is "safely" above the major failure level, his job is once again secure. Management will be unable to find anyone "qualified" to take over such a project.

   It is generally best to stop increasing the level of crises before the company becomes bankrupt. However, there is a more advanced ploy in which the company actually is driven into bankruptcy. In the simple version presented here, the manager holds the level of crises above the major failure level but below the bankruptcy level until he and top management solve the problem. An important aspect of the solution must of course be a satisfactory new assignment for the troubled technologist.

Some scholarly individuals have suggested that a technologist should not waste his time trying to follow the controlled introduction of crises of curve A. Rather, he should immediately target a course to get above the major failure level as quickly as possible. This suggestion, however, fails to take proper account of the uncertainties at each step.

My analysis shows that a person who follows curve A has a probability of being promoted before time 2to of 97.3 per cent. Thus, if one assumes ten promotions will be required to reach the top, the probability of getting there through ten consecutive promotions is quite good: 76.1 per cent.

On the other hand, it is in no sense a certainty that every big failure will be followed by a big promotion. My studies show, in fact, that the probability is only slightly better than 50-50; that is, 57.4 per cent. Assuming that five big promotions are needed to get to the top, the probability of getting there through five big failures is thus 6.2 per cent, or only about twice as good as the probability, in tossing a coin, of turning up heads five times in a row.

Most people would not be willing to risk their careers on odds like this. However, for the person of virtually no technical competence at all, the path of big failures does provide a 6.2 per cent chance of reaching the very-top!

Next: The S-Curve Law.