Learning from Failure… a collection of stories, insights and lessons learned.
I will admit that I definitely have earned the moniker of “The Failure Guy” with my incessant ramblings on the topic of failure: our fear of it, the importance of learning from it, and the necessity of preparing for it. So I wasn’t surprised when a friend had forwarded me a LinkedIn post titled “The PreMortem: Preventing Failure Before You Fail.” To be honest I had read the article and thought that it sounded quite ridiculous; the idea that we could simply avoid failure by just preparing more for it seemed tragically flawed. How much preparation would be required to completely prevent failure on a project of any reasonable complexity?
To be fair, I think everyone in business can benefit by drawing a more clear distinction between projects where failure should be avoided (e.g. IT systems implementation) and where failure should be managed (e.g. new business development). Too often we blur the lines and create significant confusion. I agree with the author that more preparation could maybe reduce our chances of failure, but I disagree that it will prevent failure. I know this may be a matter of semantics but here I really believe that the language matters. To prevent something is to stop that something from happening.
In the article the author describes how we should take some of the energy that we apply to a “project” postmortem and apply it to a pre-mortem where we examine what might go wrong with a project once we have decided which path to follow. For a project of limited risk and complexity, the suggestion to be more mindful in our planning makes perfect sense. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” comes to mind and for general carpentry the idea of a little more preparation prior to action fits perfectly. In this scenario there are a limited number of variables involved and the action is irrevocable.
But what about work like new business development or innovation development where the future state is unknown? To predict when you would find failure would require a crystal ball to see into the future. While I first read the post I was a bit annoyed by the hypothesis but I didn’t want to be the antagonist and decided to refrain from commenting. The more I thought about this idea the more dangerous I thought the language was. It confuses the fact that sometimes failure is the result that we need to achieve. Mistakes should be prevented but failures in this work are the outcomes of reaching into the unknown of the future while understanding the possible risks and proceeding anyway.
In this high risk work where organizations are placing bets on the future, more preparation can help avoid mistakes but there is no such thing as a pre-mortem that can prevent failure. In these scenarios where we tolerate failure as part of the process, what happens when things don’t turn out as planned? I’ll suggest that instead of talking about pre-mortems maybe we should instead consider talking about “failure prenuptials” that focus on what happens when failure occurs.
The measure of success for most NFL coaches is did they get their team into the postseason playoffs. This year the Minnesota Vikings had a regular season record of 10 wins and 6 loses, the exact same record as the Chicago Bears. Even though the Bears had the same numbers of wins, the Vikings made it the playoffs and the Bears didn’t. This was based on the Vikings winning one more division game than the Bears. The Bears season is over and so is coach Lovie Smith’s era when he was fired last Monday. How different the feeling is for Vikings coach Leslie Fraizer. He is being lauded for bringing his team back from a 3-13 record last season and getting his team to the playoffs this year.
What if the Vikings didn’t make the playoffs, how secure would Fraizer be? It is important to remember, the Vikings got into the playoffs with a field goal against the Green Bay Packers to win in the last minute of the last game of their regular season. That game could have easily gone the other way for the Vikings and Lovie and his Bears would be in the playoffs. If they had won would his job be any more secure?
The reason that everyone is giving for firing Coach Smith is that the team has missed the playoffs five times in the last six years, in spite of the fact that he took the team to the Super Bowl in 2006. Maybe the problem is expectations, with Fraizer coming off of a horrible season last year and Lovie having been to the Super Bowl already? But in a league purposely constructed to create “parity” with the better draft picks and the schedules benefiting the “weaker” teams aren’t we naturally going to see teams going up and down? I would suggest that the Bears six losses were to several of the BEST teams in the NFL this year – Green Bay twice, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Minnesota.
With all of the random chances in a football game or season, does firing a “winning” coach for losing one more game really make sense? Think of the randomness of when a player gets hurt. The Bears frequently lost some of their key players at critical times, Hester, Cutler, and Urlacher just to name a few. Add in some of the poor performances from key players and it is even more difficult to point out the team’s critical failures. In the few Bears games that I had watched, there were too many easy passes dropped by “able” receivers to blame just the coaches.
In the end the buck stops with the head coach, and for better or worse we give him credit or place blame far too easily. We all want to “win” and we won’t tolerate “failure.” We seek out the cause of “failure” and we expunge it from the system with the hope that we will replace it with success. Far too often we don’t find success through this process, only change. And this is why we are fools.
I am certain that Lovie will land well somewhere else in the league as a head coach; in fact ESPN already has him short listed for Jacksonville or maybe Buffalo. In this way, the NFL seems a lot like Silicon Valley startup where everyone wants the “big breakout success” but they also know that those breakouts are almost impossible to find. So as long as they don’t screw up too badly they will get another chance to lead somewhere else. And just maybe luck will follow them?
So as we consider who is successful and who is a failure we might want to remember, the Chicago Bears under coach Lovie Smith made it to the Super Bowl just six years ago, the last time the Vikings made it to a Super Bowl was in 1977 under coach Bud Grant.
The king of conservative retail, Target Corp, just had a rare sighting… a failure? While Target might not be the most conservative retailer out there they certainly wouldn’t be considered a big risk taker. In fact, just two years ago Target announced they were taking the huge leap into “international” retailing. If you are keeping track that was a full 20 years after Wal-Mart opened its first international store, Mexico City, Mexico, in 1991! Well, we are still waiting for the Target Canada stores to open in March/April 2013 but Target’s recent partnership with Neiman Marcus has officially been deemed a failure. See Time’s recent article titled Epic Retail Fail: Where Did the Target + Neiman Marcus Collection Go Wrong?
Target’s behind the scenes blog (A Bullseye View – named after their logo and dog mascot) describes the collaboration as “1 legendary partnership. More than 50 gorgeous gifts” with images and videos of the launch party and commercials. The partnership utilized a stable of high end designers that created a unique collection of holiday gifts that both companies sold online and in-store. As of today, most of the items are listed as 70% off with only a few being sold out. It looks as if they planned for a big holiday party but no one came?
If Target executives (and Neiman Marcus) are anything like most of the other Fortune 500 executives, they are already heading for the hills. They have already listed all of the reasons why this partnership failed (or at least the reasons they could think of) and they are ready to “bury the body” and move on. The individuals who were working on the project might now wondering what their future holds. Have they ruined their career? How long will they have to wear the Scarlet Letter “F” around the office? Or maybe even, will they have a job?
This failure won’t cause either company massive losses but it might dramatically affect their future revenues depending on how they respond. In my research, many executives will quickly discard their failures for fear that a blemished record will tarnish their career – a natural reaction in a highly competitive workplace. These executives would prefer to shove the failed project into the proverbial closet and run in the opposite direction. What happens next is that everyone “learns” to avoid future failures by either quickly abandoning projects at even the slightest hint of disappointment or they might simple stop playing the “innovation” game – recognizing that the risk vs. reward equation is not in their favor.
I would suggest to my friends at Target that this will be a great learning opportunity for the entire organization. Take your time to really examine what happened. Prepare your story and be transparent within the organization: 1) what did you accomplish, 2) what did you learn, and 3) what would you have done differently? If handled correctly, this can be a great chance for Target leaders to shape how the organization will handle risk and failure in the future.
I do have to give Target credit though. While it might not have played out as they had expected this certainly was an innovative idea and beyond their typical risk profile. Maybe next time they’ll hit the bullseye?
Note: Earlier this year I had written a post (How Do We Learn to Fail? Lessons From Target and Wimbledon High School) that described how Target had used the theme of failure for their “Design Month” and had inventor James Dyson keynote the event.
Food For Thought:
Everyone credits Steve Jobs for the success of Apple but where would Apple be without their “failed” former CEO John Sculley who had to oust Steve Jobs from the company he founded? Not to say that their contributions were both equal but they were both instrumental in shaping Apple for its incredible success. It is well understood that organizations need different types of leaders at different times. Sometimes organizations need a good failure to create the drive that will propel them toward success. And sometimes leaders find their passion within the boiling animosity of working relationships. All of these situations were found with the Steve Jobs vs. John Sculley saga at Apple. So how can we learn from them?
Added 9/10/2013: Interview with Sculley at Forbes Global CEO Conference in Bali, Indonesia. From an audience member’s question, Sculley gives his longest so far on why he fired Steve Jobs and what he learned from it.
How did we get here? It is important to remember that John Sculley was brought in to run Apple because then CEO Mike Markkula desperately wanted to retire and he thought that Jobs lacked the “discipline and temperament” to run Apple. Sculley wasn’t the first choice, primarily because he lacked “technical” experience, but he was recognized as one of the hottest product marketers in the country. Steve was impressed with what John had been able to accomplish at Pepsi with the Pepsi Challenge and he anxiously wanted him to join Apple. After a six month courtship, Sculley eventually joined Apple as CEO in May 1983.
Not the right timing. Jobs might have been a visionary but his demanding, and frequently unpredictable, expectations were continually taking projects off track. His delays with the development of Apple Lisa computer eventually got him shifted to Macintosh development team where it was more of the same. All of these delays were costing the company a considerable amount and putting their future at risk. The Macintosh eventually saw a successful launch but there was rising concern amongst Apple’s Board of Directors. Sculley was told by the board to “contain” Jobs which he tried to do but it only infuriated Steve to the point where he tried to have Sculley ousted as CEO. Eventually, it was Sculley who had Jobs driven from the company, lighting the long fuse inside of Steve to seek his revenge.
Stoking the fire. In kicking Steve out of his own company, Sculley had motivated Jobs like no one else could. In Walt Isaacson’s biography of Jobs he described how even twenty-five years later Steve still “seethed” when recalling his ouster from Apple. At the time Jobs was quoted as saying that “Don’t worry, I am not going to let him get away with it!” This kind of animosity can toxic but it can also be extremely motivating. It reminds me of the story the German brothers Rudolf and Adolf Dassler who started making sports shoes in their mother’s laundry room in the 1920s. The bothers were partners in the sports shoe business but a rift had formed between them and in 1948, forcing them to go their separate ways as Adidas and Ruda (eventually to be renamed as Puma). For the last 60 years these two companies have battled as bitter rivals in sports equipment and clothing business. It is this intense rivalry that many analysts cite as a major factor in driving their ultimate success. Their passions fueled their competition and their competition fueled their companies.
Looking back. The reality in the Jobs vs. Sculley feud had created a dynamic that previously didn’t exist. By leaving the company that he founded and loved, Jobs got a chance to fail with NeXT Computer in ways that might have ended up destroying his beloved Apple. He was able to come back to Apple with the lessons that he had learned from NeXT and Pixar.
Sculley mentioned (in an interview posted on Cult of Mac) that “it was a big mistake that I was ever hired as CEO.” He knew that he wasn’t the first choice – Steve was the first choice but the board didn’t think he was ready. Since Steve was still Chairman, the largest shareholder, and the head of the Macintosh division he both oversaw Sculley and was overseen by Sculley. Through hindsight, it is clear that there was little chance for that relationship to have been sustainable. Sculley would have preferred a structure that would have allowed for both of them to focus on what they best brought to the company. Later in the same interview Sculley mentions, “It’s so obvious looking back now … that would have been the right thing to do. We didn’t do it, so I blame myself for that one. It would have saved Apple this near-death experience they had.” But without this “near death” experience Apple wouldn’t be the same company.
In the now infamous commencement address that Jobs gave to Stanford University graduates in 2005 he said that getting fired from Apple was one of the best things that could have happened to him. He noted, “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Jobs had come to understand the connectedness in what had happened to both him and to Apple. Jobs went on to say that, “I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.”
A successful return. In 1996, Jobs eventually returned to Apple as it was struggling to remake the Apple OS as multitasking operating system. The solution would be for Apple to acquire Jobs’ NeXT Company which had already given up on the hardware side of the business to focus on their multitasking NeXTSTEP operating system. In 1997, a year later, Apple CEO Gil Amelio was ousted and Steve Jobs was named interim CEO. In 2000, Jobs announced that he was dropping the “interim” from the title and the rest is history: iPods, iTunes, iPhones, iPads, and of course the numerous desktop and laptop Mac computers that were part of Apple’s humble beginning. As of October 25, 2012, Apple has the highest market capitalization in the world and is valued at $573 billion.
Food for thought:
There won’t be any floats or parades in San Francisco today but there will be a similarly strong debate on fear, emotion, and failure. Today is the fourth annual FailCon conference being held in San Francisco, California. The goal of the conference is to “Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it” and it is targeted at Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investors, developers and designers. The thought is that by talking about our failures and learning from the failures of others we can move beyond our fear of failure toward our path to success. Sound familiar?
This year’s speakers will include representatives from Intuit, Google Ventures, Venture Beat, and GroupOn to share their stories. The day will also include presentations from authors and innovation gurus Eric Ries (@ericries) and Scott Berkun (@berkun). The conference will not be streamed but you can follow along via Twitter with the #Failcon hashtag. Happy Failure Day!
A friend and former colleague who knows of my interest and passion for better understanding failure had forwarded a link to me a few months back for www.admittingfailure.com. The site is hosted by Ashley Good from the group Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWBC). Ashley launched the site in January 2011 as part of a growing movement in bringing transparency to failures in the international development sphere. The people working in the non-profit sector are not much different to those working in for-profit businesses when it comes to failure. A statement from the site notes that “The development community is failing…to learn from failure. Instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them away out of fear and embarrassment.”
What I found so interesting about this story is the impact that failure can have in the development community. When we talk about failure in the for-profit sector the negative consequences usually affect things like our pride, reputation, or chances for promotion. In some cases it might impact our wealth or future employment but never will it have a life or death impact. In the development world failures will almost certainly have lethal consequences. For example, EWBC works with rural Africans in Zambia, Malawi, Ghana and Burkina Faso to improve access to clean water and critical infrastructure, increase local farm yields, and support business opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Every time limited resources might be wasted on a “failed” concept in the development community it can cost lives. That part is worth repeating… “it can cost lives.”
So if the consequences are that high maybe we should make sure that everyone has the chance to learn from these failures so that we can avoid those same mistakes in the future? These stories shared and the lessons learned on www.admittingfailure.com is just such an attempt to learn from these mistakes. The truth is that the site has only a couple of dozen stories shared but this is a start, it is a platform that can be used to archive, catalog, and search failed initiatives. In taking action to learn from their mistakes I have to say that this non-profit can teach a valuable lesson to their for-profit counterparts.
Back in April 2011 David Damberger delivered a TED Talk titled “What happens when an NGO admits failure” at TEDxYYC that describes the work being done by EWBC and the important role of www.admittingfailure.com.
Food for thought:
How do we learn how to fail? I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, we don’t need to “know” how to fail because it just happens. We start with a plan or idea and it could be any plan really: to get an A on a paper, to get into a certain school, to ask someone out on a date, or to get that next promotion. We then set in motion actions that will get us closer to our plan: studying the class material, preparing an application, finding out a phone number (I have to admit my dating experience might be a “dated”), or delivering a key project for your boss. Eventually you will either succeed or fail in your plan: maybe you ace the test, you get your acceptance letter, she agrees to a first date, or you get that promotion? But maybe you don’t? And if not, then what happens next? What is your fallback plan, your contingency, or your pivot? How do you pick yourself up and move on?
If you think back through your life, where do we get a chance to learn how to accept failure and bounce back? The paradox is that often times the more “successful” you have been in life, academically, personally, or professionally the fewer chances you have had to embrace your failures and learn that you can recover from them. I have always been a big fan of learning by example. Show me an example of what good looks like and I will strive to surpass that expectation? But if we begin with fewer opportunities or worse yet we deny ourselves the opportunity to fail how will we know what “good failure” looks like?
A friend of mine shared with me that last week Target Corporation kicked off “Design Month” at their headquarters in Minneapolis, MN. The theme this year is all about learning from failure. They have posters are up everywhere reading “Failure to Succeed” with scheduled events throughout the month discussing failure. The keynote event will be a presentation by inventor / entrepreneur James Dyson of the Dyson vacuum fame. This by itself is impressive in that most organizations I have researched barely even mention the possibility of failure let along address it head on. But what will be more important for Target is not how they talk about the importance of failure but how they act when failure occurs.
In last week’s post I received positive comments and some feedback on Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk discussing how our schools are killing creativity. In the TED Talk video Robinson discusses how the entire K-12 educational system is meant to weed out creativity, spontaneity, and trial and error. Earlier this year I had read a great story from the BBC (link here) that ties together both of these concepts perfectly.
Wimbledon High School, a top girls’ school in the UK, was hosting their first “Failure Week” where students were encouraged to explore risk taking, failure, and the lessons that can be learned from our mistakes. The principle (or headmistress as they refer to her) was quoted as saying “the girls need to learn how to fail well – and how to get over it and cope with it” and that the “fear of failing can be really crippling and stop the girls doing things they really want to do.” This is a perfect environment to de-risk the repercussions and stigma associated with failure!
By the way if you are curious for more details on Wimbledon High School (link here), there is an interesting Wiki page with the school’s history. To be honest, it sounds a little like the basis for JK Rowling’s Hogwarts. Speaking of Rowling, here is one of my favorite commencement addresses from her to the Harvard graduating class of 2008 on the “fringe benefits of failure.” There was a lot of noise at the time on why a writer was important enough to address the future captains of industry coming out of Harvard. Maybe after the critics realized that JK Rowling’s net worth had surpassed $1 billion they quieted down?
Food for thought:
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