Admitting Failure, Rewriting the book on Burying Mistakes

Admitting failure

When you have to move to plan B, did you learn anything from what went wrong with Plan A?

This morning I came across the Admitting Failure website. This fantastic site, a collection of well intentioned projects gone wrong, is the brainchild of Engineers without Borders, a volunteer group of Engineers who commit to doing engineering projects around the world. It’s an offshoot of their original “Failure Reports” that they compiled each year to detail projects that had not worked out as planned or not survived after they left.

Most businesses don’t keep “Failure Reports.” Most prefer to bury the mistakes as quickly as possible and move on, so perhaps it’s not unexpected that it took the analytical mind of engineers to not only catalog and categorize their mistakes but actually share them publically.  (By the way, physicians do it too, with their Morbidity and Mortality conferences where they review cases gone wrong).  What was particularly interesting was that the public website came out when one of  the participating engineers realized that the volunteer teams began to actually look forward to reviewing the annual “Failure Reports” to see what they could do differently.

The format of each story is fairly simple, What you set out to do, what happened, what went wrong, what could you have done differently, what do you do differently now? But inside each one is a world of truth. About setting clear expectations, trusting your gut, not being swayed from a proven success formula by outside pressure to hit a goal, knowing your customer.

We fail. We fail often. For every heartwarming “feel good” success or rocketing business success, there is a landscape littered with failures. The challenge is to learn how to fail forward, so the next time, the learning is faster and moves you to a higher ground.

Looking for a methodology on failing fast? Try Lean Startups by Eric Ries for ideas on how to fail fast and build something designed to be responsive to the market needs.

book by Jeanne Goldie

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Turnaround Rule #10.5 Know When to Go.

 

Know when to exit a turnaround situation

The dirty secret of completing a turnaround is knowing when to leave.

One of the dirty little secrets of being a change agent is that sometimes it’s time to go once your best work is done.  It’s good to go out on top.  The part no one talks about is that sometimes you have to create such a shakeup, there will be those with their knives out waiting for your first misstep the second your triumph becomes public.

Classic example.  I was a senior director at a large government services agency where the entire management team had been brought in to create an amazing turnaround. The executive director had taken on a complex, politically fraught (and, given the environment, often life-threatening) job, and executed an amazing turnaround. She was feted first in the industrial journals, then more publicly. The majority of the turnaround took three years culminating in national recognition. The agency, previously rated at a 33, was given a perfect 100 score by its regulator. There was talk of a Cabinet appointment. The director demurred, feeling there was more work to do.

A few more years went by. A different political party took office for the next 8 years. No more Cabinet appointment-speak…but still some acclaim. And slowly but surely, those whose apple cart she had upset were waiting with knives drawn.  Suddenly there were whispers about her salary, two of her contract arrangements, and talk of having her removed. By the time the next “friendly” national  administration was in place, the damage was done.

Was she perfect? No. As a matter of fact, I didn’t care for one of those contracts and felt a better deal could be negotiated locally.  But she took one of the single most daunting tasks of cleaning up a notoriously corrupt agency and turned it around.  In record time.  Which everyone conveniently forgot about 8 years later.  They forgot what it was like when the post office decided not to deliver to one of the facilities because the hail of bullets were so bad. That area that now hosts national golf tournaments, a model community and a fantastic magnet school.

Go out on top. Go out when the work is 99% done. There is nothing over 100%, no awards that equal A+++. If you’re good at this, you need to move on to the next challenge.  I am in no way advocating a “band aid” cure as a permanent fix but get out while the next opportunities are flying in the door. Otherwise you’ll forever be talking about your triumphs in past tense, because once you have everything thriving, the world collectively forgets what it took to get there all too quickly.

Have you ever overstayed after a project was done? Share in the comments box!

Did you miss rules 1-10? Get them here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Thinking about making a move? Size up your Corporate Landscape or any other company you may be thinking of moving to by using our free guide, Reading the Terrain. Get your copy today by putting your email address in the subscription box at right. And no, we won’t spam you, you’ll just get our weekly update of articles.

© Jeanne Goldie 2015