Is your business courting disaster – or training your way out of it?
01 Aug 2016

Is your business courting disaster – or training your way out of it?


categories: Business Simulations, Experiential Learning

Failure in itself is not a catastrophe, but failure to learn from failure definitely is. It is not enough to train leaders in core competencies, without identifying the key factors that inhibit their use, the resilience and adaptability that are vital in order to distinguish potential leaders from mediocre managers. Anticipating change as a result of VUCA is an outcome to a resilient Leader.”

(Wikipedia entry re. VUCA)


risk analysis;

contingency planning;

not being obsessed about every little ‘what if’ and hence delaying decisions;

being sensitive and aware as situations develop, issues accumulate;

recognising when a ‘plan B’ makes more sense:

– it’s all part of a modern leader’s remit.

A lot of business and training practices stem from military experience and high-profile commercial ‘incidents’, where lives were at stake and the application of the right strategy, teamwork and clear unambiguous communication was required if a disaster was to be averted. We can learn a lot from tragedies in history, but proactive prevention is far preferable to post-disaster, retrospective correction.

The Titanic, the ‘unsinkable’ liner on her maiden voyage, had been designed with ‘watertight’ bulkheads. Yet they did not reach to the ceiling; and the water crossed over them when the ship was holed. That was a fault in design that actually made the sinking quicker. Another failure was down to marketing: the designer allowed for two rows of lifeboats but it was decided to remove one row to make the deck look more attractive. Many more people could have been saved.

Apollo 13, the moon mission whose crew were brought safely home when an oxygen tank exploded, was a heroic story in terms of NASA control staff and the astronauts: yet the cause was a failure in communication and teamwork. Beech, the tank manufacturer, did not notify the thermostat makers of an increase in voltage in the Apollo specifications; so the thermostat switches overheated and welded open, causing a mammoth surge of heat. A classic case of silos that did not work together transparently.

The Air France Airbus that went down into the Atlantic in 2009 had three cockpit crew – the two senior members elected to sleep just before a patch of bad weather; icing caused system malfunctions; and the inexperienced third member misread the stall warning messages and pulled up the nose instead of lowering it. The investigation concluded that they had all received insufficient training in manual emergency flying and the airline’s management had relied too heavily on computerised flying systems.

What can we draw from these failures? Firstly, that although the hardware can be (and often is) blamed exclusively, in reality the biggest problem is human error. And because few of us work alone or in a vacuum, the disaster is due to failures of leadership and teamwork, often linked to insufficient training.

In Learning and Development, it is a staple phrase that we live in a VUCA business world – comprised of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. But the phrase did not just appear – it was developed at the US Army War College during the Cold War era, as part of military training.

In the experiential learning programmes that we at ProfitAbility construct for businesses and organisations, managers and staff members are placed in difficult, VUCA simulations relevant to their business situation – where they will often initially fail; and that is the core of the learning. For we remember failing: and we strive to overcome it and remember how we learned to succeed.

According to the identified business need, we construct bespoke learning programmes for –

  • Change Management
  • Agile Leadership
  • Magnetic Leadership
  • Strategic Alignment & Execution
  • Business & Financial Acumen
  • Team Building

And the moral of the disastrous cases listed earlier is that businesses can (and must) learn from failure and their management can improve:

  1. The White Star Line redesigned subsequent ocean liners with higher bulkheads, a double hull to provide protection against collisions, and lifeboats for all those on board.
  1. NASA redesigned its Apollo hardware for later missions but also worked more closely with and between its subcontractors. (Nevertheless the manned moon missions programme had been dealt a fatal blow).
  1. Air France worked on its management systems and crew training programmes to try to avoid future disasters in the air.

We are always happy to talk to you about your business’s challenges and consequent training needs: and to truly get a feel for how our techniques work, find out why we achieve such record participant evaluation scores (9.4/10 average on recent VW Group simulations: their highest-ever). You can experience a day of playing shortened versions of our business simulations, for free and in the company of other L&D professionals. Our next session is in London on September 14thregister now to ensure your place.

Richard Young is Practice Head, Leadership Development, ProfitAbility











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