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Failing Strategically

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Consulting and Professional Services Radio

Jeff Porter / Lew Sauder

Description: Ideas, Information and Inspiration for Consultants and Service Professionals

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Failing Strategically

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Consultants today need to balance learning from mistakes, with maintaining credibility with clients.  This week we will discuss the concept of learning from mistakes while saving face with those that may be judging you professionally.

  1. What do you mean by failing strategically?
    1. Well, it’s been my observation that we live in a world that is becoming less and less risk tolerant.  At the elementary school where my children attended, there was a rule against running during recess.  When I was that age, we were encouraged to run at recess so that we burned off that excess energy outside the classroom.
    2. But in our litigious society, if a child falls while they’re running, the school could be held liable.  So as a result, they’ve set up rules to try to prevent anyone from getting hurt.
    3. When I got hurt from falling down on the playground, the response I usually got from my parents was that it built character. But now the school doesn’t want anyone to fall.
    4. We have a similar situation in the world today where, if someone fails, they’re often ostracized.
    5. Here in the US, we just had our presidential elections.  I enjoy watching the political races where the candidate says something stupid or in a way that gets interpreted wrong and their opponents latch onto it to make them look like a bumbling fool.
    6. The same kind of thing happens in our business world.  I believe that there are too many corporate cultures where any type of mistake or failure is considered bad.  We seem to only want people who consistently do things right.
    7. So some organizations have not created incentives for people to succeed.  They’ve only created incentives for people not to fail.
    8. And as a result, these organizations have significantly reduced risk taking.  People focus on taking the safe route to a solution.  And my opinion is that it results in mediocre outcomes.  People don’t take the risk to do something successful, but instead play defense and stay below the radar.
  2. Are you suggesting people try to fail?
    1. Not at all. I wouldn’t encourage people to fail.  But not to spend so much energy trying not to.  Nobody’s perfect and everybody fails.  If you can be comfortable with your failures and learn from them, you’ll find that over time, you grow each time.
    2. We also need to be more tolerant of failure.  There’s the famous story of Thomas Edison who failed over 100 times trying to invent the light bulb.  When someone pointed it out, he said he hadn’t failed that many times, he’d figured out 100 ways not to do it.
    3. On the flip side of that, if you don’t take any risks, you don’t grow and you become stagnant.  When you do make mistakes, if you sweep them under the rug and cover them up, you don’t grow from that either.
    4. The much healthier way to deal with failure is to come out and admit your mistake.  Show some confidence and comfort in your own skin with your errors.
    5. In addition to that, it’s about taking calculated risks.  If you play it safe all the time and never take chances, you may never feel the embarrassment of failure, but you also significantly reduce your chances of success.
    6. So failing strategically is a matter of taking risks to be willing to fail and when you do fail, being OK with it.
  3. Since you seem so big on failing, what are some of the most strategic failures you’ve experienced?
    1. Well, I’ve had a lot of small failures.  Sort of death by a thousand paper cuts.  I’ve been in meetings where I asked a question that everyone knew.  I’ve made suggestions where either my boss or the client – or both – immediately shot it down as if it were the stupidest idea they’d ever heard.
    2. But it hasn’t deterred me, because I’ve also made those suggestions and asked those questions where they all jumped on it and it helped us move forward.
    3. So I’m willing to look like the fool once in a while and keep taking chances like that for the times that I can really add value.
    4. I’ve also made some pretty big mistakes.  I was managing a project that had fallen behind.  Instead of reporting the delayed status to the client – and to my management, I showed the project as green in my status report, hoping that we could catch up and avoid looking bad.
    5. As you might have guessed, we fell even further behind and by the time my manager and the client found out, we were in deep trouble.
    6. The client was mad at our firm for hiding the truth from them.  They had to go to their next level of management with the news and it made them look foolish.
    7. I looked foolish too.  But instead of hanging my head, I learned a valuable lesson in reporting the truth in my status – no matter how bad it may make me look, tell the client the brutal truth before it gets any worse.
    8. Since then, I’ve worked with other project managers and shared my big mistake to help them avoid making the same one.
  4. Being unafraid of failing sounds like a great approach for growth.  But what about people who work for companies or a boss that doesn’t have a high tolerance for failure.
    1. Again, this is about calculated risks.  Obviously, if you go around being sloppy and careless, you probably won’t get very far and could eventually be asked to leave.
    2. In the situation I just talked about where I didn’t report my status until it was too late, I worked for one of those bosses who pointed out every mistake you made but rarely gave people credit for their successes.  It could be discouraging at times, but I didn’t let it get to me.
    3. Despite making mistakes once in a while – some of them embarrassing for the firm and for me – I knew that over the long haul, I did more things right.  They weren’t going to punish me for making an occasional mistake.  Especially if I learned from it.
    4. I just had to learn to ignore my boss’s criticism and move on.
    5. But there are environments and bosses that have a very low tolerance for mistakes. You may live under a lot of stress not to fail.  If that’s the case, you may have to reduce your risk level and play not to fail.
    6. There’s not much growth in that type of an environment.  You may want to determine whether you want to work in that environment.
    7. Most consulting environments I’ve worked in have a higher tolerance for risk if you’re not client facing, but a much lower tolerance when you are client facing.
    8. I’ve usually found clients to be tolerant of mistakes if you honestly admit your errors and learn from them.
    9. In most cases, consulting firms are more uptight than they need to be.
    10. But the bottom line is if your firm is intolerant of failure, you either have to learn to live with it, or see if you can find another firm to work for that will tolerate and maybe even encourage taking calculated risks.
  5. You talked about celebrating failures.  What are some ways you suggest an organization celebrate their failures
    1. If you can do it as an organization that’s terrific.  That indicates that you have a culture that tolerates mistakes.
    2. I was at a client once where I had run a big data query and it became one of those run-away queries.  I set it off to run and, without checking to see how much of the system’s resources it was using, I walked away.
    3. About fifteen minutes later, the system administrator came into our team room and just laid into me.  He scolded me in front of the whole team, telling me that I had brought the system to its knees and that I should have known better.
    4. After he left, everyone just kind of stood there in this embarrassed silence.
    5. It took me a minute to get my self-esteem back.  But then I told them what I did and that, while the administrator could have handled it a bit differently, everything he said was correct.  I did know better than to do that.
    6. So I shared with the team what I did and accomplished two things.  I alleviated their embarrassment by confronting it.
    7. But I also shared my mistake and helped them understand what I did so they didn’t make the same mistake.
    8. I’ve also been involved in projects that have lessons learned sessions.  This is usually a session where teams share ideas about what we could do better as a group.  And while that doesn’t necessarily focus on mistakes as much as process improvements, the team can also discuss things that went wrong and brainstorm about better ways to do things.
    9. It’s also an opportunity for people to stand up and say “Here’s something I did wrong during the project and this is what I learned.”
    10. I’ll guarantee you that nobody is going to think you’re stupid for the mistake you made or for publicizing it.
    11. On the contrary, most people will respect the fact that you were open about sharing your failure and your lesson learned.
    12. But you can do it at a personal level as well.  If you’re in a one-on-one situation, especially if you’re mentoring someone, you can share your mistakes and help them not to make the same ones.  It helps to set the example to them that it’s ok to make mistakes.
  6. You’ve mentioned calculated risks a few times.  How do you quantify when a risk is worth taking?
    1. When we talk about quantifying a risk, it seems rather scientific and that’s not always possible.  It’s often a gut call.
    2. But whenever you take a risk, you have to think about what you can gain vs. the ramifications you’ll face if you fail.
    3. Going back to my example of speaking up in a meeting with a suggestion or asking a question, I always know that if it’s a bad idea or a question I should know, the ramification is just a little embarrassment.  But the possible gain is that they’ll like the suggestion and we’ll have a good idea.  Or if it’s a good question, it could give the rest of the team an idea that could result in a breakthrough.
    4. With that in mind, asking a question or making a suggestion is almost always a good calculated risk.
    5. It does depend on doing my homework.  If it’s a dumb question because I didn’t research the company or their industry, then I may lose credibility with the client.
    6. But if I’ve done my homework, I usually don’t hesitate to speak up.
    7. There’s rarely a scientific approach you can take.  You have to factor in your own firm’s tolerance as well as the client’s tolerance for mistakes.
  7. So any final thoughts about failing strategically.
    1. I think the biggest difficulty with it is balancing your own tolerance for making mistakes with that of your firm.
    2. Everybody has their own level that they’re comfortable with and every firm has their own.
    3. But the fact is, while I talk about comfort level, nobody is really comfortable with failure.
    4. Unless you’re Thomas Edison, you don’t just naturally say, oh, well that failure showed me one more approach that this won’t work.
    5. I remember a famous story of Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM.  One of his vice president’s made a mistake that cost the company $100,000, which was a small fortune back in the 30s and 40s.
    6. The VP went to Mr. Watson and said “I assume you’ll be asking for my resignation.”
    7. Tom Watson looked at him and said, “Why would I want to get rid of you?  I just spent a $100,000 training you.”
    8. If we looked at mistakes as just a training expense, we would realize that it’s all part of the learning process rather than a black mark on our careers.

Next week’s topic: Why you should consider a career in consulting



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