Failure is more likely to encourage positive change if blame is hard to assign. CU Denver Business School Associate Professor Vinit Desai analyzed failures in a life or death situation and published his results in Academy of Management, one of the world’s foremost scholarly management periodicals.

A study based on hospital mortality rates

For this study, Desai analyzed failures by analyzing death rates from cardiac-bypass surgery in over 115 Californian hospitals. By studying the change in death rates from these surgeries, he found some broader takeaways relevant to businesses beyond hospital systems.

Desai found that the hospitals where mortality rates improved the most were the ones where patient deaths were spread across procedures performed by multiple surgeons rather than concentrated after just a few surgeons’ procedures.

When patient deaths were associated with procedures performed by just a few surgeons, surgeon turnover tended to increase. While this may have been sufficient in some cases, it was only when patient deaths were more spread out that hospitals tended to institute additional procedural changes aimed at improving cardiac surgery outcomes.

“Don’t be too quick to assign blame”

Desai sums up the primary lesson of the study by recommending, “Don’t be too quick to assign blame. In all likelihood, there is more to be lost in doing so than there is in looking for a deeper cause. Difficult though they may be, deep searches for underlying structural solutions or procedural changes can pay off in a big way even in high-functioning organizations.”

The paper, “Learning through the Distribution of Failures within an Organization: Evidence from Heart Bypass Surgery Performance,” is in the August/September issue of the Academy of Management. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with close to 20,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy’s other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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