How To Set Your Failure Up To Succeed


Failure is a scary word in our work today. While the startup culture has embraced failure as the best learning took in the market, the word still has chilling effects on today’s business leaders. An Amazon search reveals over 22,000 books include the word “failure” in some fashion. Another few thousand can be added on this list by changing the word to “fail”, as Ryan Babineaux does in his popular tome. Failure, as it seems, has become yet another cottage industry.

For the most part, we still do everything we can to avoid it. In my most disturbing Google search to date, I even found that certain project management circles are using something they call “best practices to avoid project failure”. I sat there wounded for a good five minutes.

Yet, the tide seems to be turning.

ForbesThe Next Web, and Harvard Business Review have done their best to change the tenor of the word with pieces positing how important it is for companies to embrace the idea of not getting everything right and start learning from their mistakes. It’s tough sledding in some industries, but every little bit helps.

One of the tenets of agile is the idea that we, “move fast and break things,” to quote Zuckerberg. We have the first part down, or at least a little better. Accelerating the speed of work delivering causes some friction in all aspects of business, and I for one am happy to see the lessons learned from this attempt. It’s amazing the stuff you can live without when you force yourself to do so.

Being a bull in a china shop leaves a gigantic mess, though, which brings me to the second half of that famous phrase.

Countless blogs wrote about the amazing lessons everyone was learning in the absence of success. Since we can’t really read more than 1,000 words at a time anymore, we read how important it is to fail and we set off with that goal. The result is advice from some you should, “fail a lot”. Hopefully, nobody is reading that seriously. That’s why an equal amount of blog posts have been devoted to denouncing the idea that failing fast is a good thing.

Failure has a price, which many are willing to pay, but only if you do it with a few caveats. If you are starting off on your own venture, please dont be scared to try something and not succeed. That’s for another generation. Just keep these things in mind to help set your failure up to succeed.

  • Define what success looks like for you. I can see I’m already losing you, so let me caveat this caveat: it’s okay if you don’t know what success looks like in every situation. While metrics can be hard to define, most of the time we know what it will look like if we do something right. You just have to think about it in advance. Oh, and for the record it has to be more detailed than “get a crap-ton of users”.
  • Let the world know. Even if “the world” is defined as a few members of your team who you want to bring along for the ride, it’s important to write it down for others to see. There’s a little accountability involved, and if you tell others what you are trying to get out of them they are usually more receptive to the concept.
  • Measure along the way. Don’t wait long before you measure the success of your idea and adjust if needed. I’ve written a few times about retrospectives if you need a nudge in this area.
  • Courageously change course. Takes a big person to admit they failed. Humility is the trait that will serve you best in this endeavor. The small amount of respect I have garnered in my career has come on the heels of me owning my faults and asking for a change. Either your data or people around you will have the answers for you, but true failure comes only if you don’t heed advice.
  • Finally, don’t rush headlong into failure. While you do learn immensely when you aren’t successful, it would still be nice if you set your people up for success. Show me a team that has failed a ton and I will show you a team that is beginning to lose faith in it’s leader.

Failing is not something to blindly embrace or run from in fear. I see it as the one key stakeholder in the room nobody wants to address, yet can be the biggest pigeon in the room. Once you come out of the closet and have that difficult conversation with failure, though, it’s easy to simultaneously avoid and learn from it.

Your team’s and company’s success, depends on it.


3 thoughts on “How To Set Your Failure Up To Succeed

  1. David Marquet’s book, Turn the Ship Around includes a positive spin on failure. It includes knowing what success is.


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