How do you respond to the following advice?
“Usually, post-event debriefs are filled with accounts of what went wrong. While analyzing our need for improvement is good, we should actually be spending the majority of the time on what went right! What do you want to do again next time? Once you can pinpoint your successes, you can repeat them, and leverage them indefinitely. Ask yourself, ‘Where did we succeed?’ Obsess with what is right, and you will go higher in life.”
I understand the intention of the author — shift your focus from failure to success. While this is good advice, it also has a dangerous trap. Years ago, IBM was the leader in innovative business solutions. That is not the case today. I asked an executive who left the company what went wrong. He said, “They kept doing what they did best and failed to adapt to changing technology.”
Success can be the enemy of creative innovation and ground breaking discovery. What went wrong can be the death bed of failure or the womb of discovery.
What are some of the landmines of success?
An over-estimation of our own importance. Success can open the door to “better than” thinking. This closes our ears to the wise counsel of others and catapults us into the role of a teacher. We have the answers! We know the way! Yes, there are those who will come looking for nuggets of wisdom that will enable them to duplicate your success. However, the learners often overtake the teachers.
The failure to recognize the ingredients of our success. We are a mosaic of input. Years ago, when I saw the reality of this, I sat down and wrote a series of letters, (before email and fax) and sent them to the key people who had invested in and shaped me. Their investment had contributed to whatever success there was in my life. I wanted to thank them and let them know that the investment had brought a positive return. Remember, you would not be where you are today if people had not given you knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Find a way to express your appreciation.
The unwillingness to take risks. Most success stories involve elements of risk. Our success creates a comfort zone that we do not want to lose. “I deserve a break” creeps into our thinking and kills the spirit of adventure that fueled our success. Protectionism and perfectionism both blur our vision. Our desire to protect our product or system from contamination can close the door on innovation that could lead to future discovery. Perfectionism must be separated from excellence. Excellence is the determination to produce the best possible product within the boundaries of resource and time that have been allocated to me. Perfectionism is rooted in an unrealistic ideal that leaves me perpetually dissatisfied. Perfectionism consumes inordinate time and resource that pushes the product out of market competitiveness.
So, what is so good about failure?
It keeps me rooted in the reality of my humanity. We need to be reminded that we are not “God” and that we are part of the human race. Failure is a common experience among all people of all races, creeds or political stripes. I remember talking with a millionaire who made the comment, “I have simply succeeded one more time than I have failed.” His failure kept him rooted in his humanity and in touch with how people feel when they fail.
It opens the door to growth. Rather than encasing yourself in the tomb of self-pity, you sit down with trusted colleagues and analyze the data. What were the circumstances that contributed to the outcome? NEVER look for who is to blame. Some thought-provoking questions are in order: Was there adequate training for those involved? Did we have a clear analysis of the culture that we were endeavoring to penetrate? Did we have qualified input? If not, where could we go for better training? Was it the “right time?”
It provides an opportunity for affirmation. Failure and affirmation do not always go together. People can follow instructions and do things right and still have an end result of failure. People need acknowledgement for what they did right regardless of the outcome. However, the larger issue of affirmation comes when you draw them into your circle of analysis. Seeking the constructive input of those who were involved in the “failure” gives them a positive affirmation.
It helps build family identity. This is our business not just my business. Sink or swim, we are in this together. A young boys baseball team was behind 19-0. The spectator said to the young lad, “Aren’t you discouraged.” He replied, “NO! Our team knows this is the first inning and we haven’t got up to bat yet.” A good team can take an honest look at the score and build a good strategy for when they get up to bat.
Failure can be the medicine of success. It may taste bitter but it can also leave the sweet taste of success. I do not plan to fail, but when I do fail, I purpose to turn it into a platform for success. I look forward to seeing you at the top.