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Book Review: Breaking Failure
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Book Review: Breaking Failure by Alexander D. Edsel

Breaking Failure

Written by: Alexander D. Edsel. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2016. 221 pages. US$44.99 (hard cover).
Reviewed by: Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, NPDP

Breaking Failure

Breaking Failure by Alexander Edsel examines business failure and underperformance that occurs in many businesses and industries today. The director of the Master of Science in Marketing program for the Naveen Jindal School of Business at The University of Texas at Dallas, Edsel has more than 20 years of product and marketing management experience in the chemical, tech and health care fields.

According to the author, most failures and underperformance of any initiative are due to three factors: 1) error-prone thinking and decision making; 2) gaps in the transfer of proven tools and techniques across industries that mitigate failure and underperformance; and 3) a deficient and inconsistent foundation of knowledge among many professionals to avoid failure and underperformance. The purpose of this book is to mainly address the first two factors by introducing techniques that can cross domains and disciplines such as marketing, strategy, human resources, product management and the like.

Failure is most often caused by a lack of understanding the market and consumer, failure to commit the necessary resources, lack of engagement from senior management and changing goals. Breaking Failure addresses ways to overcome the gaps in decision making skills, detailed use of tools and techniques to prevent continuous failures, and defends the value of building foundational knowledge through professional development and certification. It presents concrete examples of tools, techniques, models and business cases that can be used to facilitate change without investing in complex and expensive computer software programs.

Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA), originating within the military, is a tool that identifies, evaluates and prioritizes risks to reduce and prevent failure. The seven step process can be customized and scaled to each company’s specific challenges, objectives and environment. Root cause analysis business failure audit (RCA) is used "where product, process or system complexity exists and failure occurs […] it is the gold standard wherever complexity is present and failure occurs."

A five-step fault tree is used to outline all the possible faults that could have contributed to the failure. Early warning systems (EWS) are employed to help companies forecast undesired outcomes. Some examples include Z-Scores, and lagging and leading indicators. The early warning system is complex with a nine-step mathematical model used to troubleshoot the underperforming measures.

Types of root causes are defined in great detail, categorizing failures as:

  • Known-knowns – addressed with market analysis and data analytics.
  • Known-unknowns – depend on forecasting models to anticipate failures or errors.
  • Unknown-unknowns – external events outside of the control of the domain (i.e., catastrophic events or disruptive technologies).

The purpose of categorizing failure is to understand how unforeseen events occur, and to be able to "identify, mitigate or prevent their occurrence" in the future.

One critical aspect of avoiding failure and underperformance is to have a preplanned exit strategy. Identifying the trigger point and the exit strategy can mean the difference between having a controlled minor loss and a significant financial loss (i.e. bankruptcy). Again, solid examples of triggers and exit strategies are outlined, facilitating how an organization can manage their exit plan in a thoughtful and methodical way.

The last chapter of the book emphasizes the importance of education, certification and domain transfer – the human side of mitigating failure and underperformance. There is value in the human resources of teams. It is important for organizations to be aware of the potentials and causes of failures, and to deliberately prevent failure by facilitating process and systems changes to work more efficiently. This can only happen when personnel are educated (i.e., professional certifications, continuing education, etc.) and where the future of artificial intelligence (cognitive computing) is valued and recognized.

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