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A Failure Of Imagination

March 8, 2010

This morning, the UK’s Radio4 ‘thought for the day’ featured a speaker who was commenting about failure. He discussed the way in which business and government each struggle to deliver the results they promised, or which were expected. He then proceeded to observe that the resulting reports and post-mortems rarely manage to provide the sort of findings and insights that satisfy those affected.

In the end, he suggested, most of these disappointing results – on major projects, large deals, key initiatives – could be attributed to one thing – a failure of imagination. Of course they are sometimes overtaken by events that could not reasonably have been predicted, but mostly not. In general, if the project or deal leaders had thought more broadly, considered other perspectives, they might have allowed for the circumstances or conditions that derailed their work.

These thoughts struck me as very apposite to the contracts and commercial management community. In assembling, negotiating and managing contracts, we sit in a unique position. For many of us, the fascination of our role is the insight it offers to the many stakeholders involved in any complex deal or project. For some, that acts as a springboard to wider ‘stakeholder analysis’ which insures we have considered all perspectives and potential risks. I was also reminded of another comment that I read recently, related specifically to contracts: “Failure is usually not from ignorance, but from ineptitude – a failure to apply what we know”.  The commentator this time (Rees Morrison) was highlighting how good lawyers and contracts professionals use checklists to eliminate the chance of ‘ineptitude’ and to free their time to think outside the box. Indeed, for some organizations this is leading to more and more outsourcing – have others manage the checklists and focus your best talent on ensuring there is no ‘failure of imagination’.

I was reminded of a previous manager, a past CEO at IBM UK who always challenged us to ‘think the opposite’.  By this challenging of our own assumptions and prejudices, we would often arrive at new realizations, new solutions – or simply avoid stupid mistakes.

So what does this ‘failure of imagination’ mean to us? At its simplest, I suggest to anyone in contracts, legal or procurement that we should ask ourselves a simple question: in assembling a contract, in pulling together all the stakeholder inputs, is our primary task simply to integrate and ensure we have a consistent document; or should we instead be focused on ensuring that there is reconciliation, that we have developed creative answers to conflicting viewpoints so that  all participants can work in harmony?

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