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On complexity of explaining business failure

Introduction

During the research period for my dissertation based on startup failures, I realized there are multiple layers of failure factors associated with any given company (or, in reverse, success factors).

These are:

  1. generic business problems (e.g., cash-flow)
  2. individual-level problems (e.g., personal chemistry)
  3. company type problems (e.g., lack of funding for startups)
  4. business model problems (e.g., chicken-and-egg for platforms)

Only if you combine these multiple layers – or perspectives – can you understand why one business venture fails and another one succeeds. However, it is also a relative and interpretative task — I would argue there can be no objective dominant explanation but failure as an outcome is always a combination of reasons and cannot therefore be reduced into simple explanations at all.

A part of the reason for the complexity is the existence of parallel root causes.

For example,

  • A company can said to have failed because it runs out of money.
  • However, why did it run out of money? Because customers would not buy.
  • Why didn’t they buy? Because the product was bad.
  • Why was the product bad? Because the team failed to recognize true need in the market.
  • Why did they fail to recognize it? They lacked such competence.
  • Why did they lack the competence? Because they had not enough funding to acquire it.

Alas! We ended up making a circular argument. That can happen with any failure explanation, as can coming up with a different root cause. In a team of many, while also considering several stakeholders, it is common that people’s explanations to cause and effect vary a great deal. It is just a feature of social reality that we have a hard time of finding unambiguity.

Conclusion

In general, it is hard to dissect cause and effect. Human beings are inclined to form narratives where they choose a dominant explanation and discard others. By acknowledging a multi-layered view on failure, one can examine a business case by applying different lenses one after another. This includes interviewing different stakeholder groups and understanding multiple perspectives ranging from individual to structural issues.

There are no easy answers as to why a particular company succeeds or fails, even though the human mind and various success stories would lead you to believe so!

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