Further discussion on Success or Failure

Discussions on what defines success or failure in the academic literature tend to centre around major disasters.  As stated in Fortune and Peters(2001) ‘the origins lie in the study of catastrophes”.   A definition of success put forward by Fortune and Peters (2001) is the following: “The system achieved what was intended of it; it was operational at the time and cost that were planned;the project team and the users are pleased with the result and they continue to be satisfied afterwards”.

There is no doubt for catastophes such as the Concorde disasters and any failed IT implementations the defintion above can apply.  But what happens to situations that are not classed in the same category.   This is a rather limiting view of situations such as NHS Direct whereby a service is being ended due to another one being introduced.    As Fortune and Peters state that another way of looking at these definitions is the need to absorb the idea that the judgement of whether a system is successful or not is a subjective one and it depends upon the standpoint of the observer.     Another way of looking at this is as highlighted by Argyris and Schon (1990)”Is it failure we are looking at or organisational learning?”

Vickers (1981) stated the following:”A human system fails if it does not succeed in doing what it was designed to do;or if it does succeed but leaves everyone wishing it had never tried”.   But again the drawback of this is that not everyone has the same perspective and thus it will never be the situation that systems will meets that definition of success and failure.   Perhaps a better approach is what was stated by Ackoff (1960) …criteria fo such failure are very difficult to formulate” due to the subjectivity of the observer.   In fact the discussion should not be about success or failure but the constant learning from errors and thus the improvement of systems.


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