Success and failure – just like hot and cold, light and darkness, love and hate, or good and evil – these represent the ends of a familiar spectrum. Countless philosophical works have pondered these seemingly opposing concepts.
My favorite view for all such opposites is that you cannot understand one without the other. They are more complementary than they are contradictory.
It’s easy to get lost in the survivorship bias that saturates history. Or to feel inadequate because of the painstakingly polished views we see in social media. So let me share some ways to rethink how you view failure, and instead make it part of the process toward success.
Plan to Fail
Failure is inevitable, yet we try so hard to avoid it. It feels crummy to admit when something we tried was not successful. Most of us tend to spin our stories after the fact, where it doesn’t sound so much like failure. Or in the worst cases we reduce our goal so that there is little chance of it being called a failure.
I prefer to welcome failure as part of the process whenever possible. Rather than avoiding it, try encouraging it. In fact, my blog post on North Star Goals talks about a wonderful goal-setting framework that allows for failure and course-correction along the way.
Planning for failure simply means allowing for experimentation. At least for me, the projects I enjoy most are the ones that involve a goal that the team doesn’t immediately know how to solve. It takes some brainstorming, some trial-and-error, and some fortitude to stick with it.
Allow Others to Fail
The easiest path to a “good” outcome is following what has already been proven. But a well-worn path will have limited reward. The true path to innovation success is littered with failed attempts and lessons learned, by a team who is dedicated to keep trying anyway.
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I’ve witnessed my share of board members and project sponsors who are overly keen to tell a good story – even to the point of stretching the truth. Sadly, this misleads those hearing the story (e.g. company leaders, investors, customers) and sets a culture of “you better not fail” to the project team. All of this for posturing and short-term gain.
I for one, prefer to be a realist while keeping an eye on long-term gain. If we were aiming for the stars but landed on the moon, I’d like to say, “we landed on the moon, it’s not where we really wanted to be, but here’s what we’d like to do next to achieve that original goal.” The team can still feel great about getting off the planet, they can understand that we’re still not at our goal, but they need to feel energized to continue. They need to know it’s part of the plan.
Recovering from Failure
I just mentioned that I’m a realist. So, I won’t sugar-coat it and act like adopting these principles is a surefire way to succeed in every attempt. Failure is inevitable, and in some scenarios, you will have to cut your losses and move on.
Maybe the company priorities have changed, and the North Star Goal is no longer where you need to head. Or maybe you’ve hit a financial or legal impasse where continued effort just does not make sense any longer. It happens.
If you’ve created a culture of innovation that accepts failure as part of the process, even the official death knell on a project doesn’t have to be viewed negatively. As a project leader, if failure was part of the plan, then sponsors and stakeholders should also understand this potential turn of events. The team learned what didn’t work and the reasons why.
Standing on the podium, kissing your gold medal when the race is over. That’s the common view of success and what people expect it to feel like. All that hard work just paid off and now you can rest…it’s over.
But that’s not realistic. Olympians who have felt that feeling may get a short break, but they aren’t done. They’ll be right back to training, trying just as hard to win the next event. Entrepreneurs often use the analogy of mountain climbing, saying that as soon as you reach one summit, you now have a new vantage point to realize you have more mountain to climb! Success doesn’t last, and you just keep going.
In the same way, failure doesn’t last either. From a failed attempt, you inevitably learn something. There’s almost always another approach to try. Even if you must cut the project, there’s still the next project where you can take your lessons learned and improve the next effort.
Don’t get caught up in the fog of survivor bias. Winning is not easy. Get rich quick schemes can burn you. Instead, try to appreciate the realistic aspects of projects, innovation, and human nature. It won’t always be a perfectly smooth ride, but you can plan around that. You can be intentional with failure, and you can ensure that no failed effort goes without providing valuable lessons learned.
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