Can you measure and plan for failure?
If you know that failure is enviable then why don’t you create metrics or decision points before failure occurs so that you can make unbiased decisions to pivot or move on?
In other words, if giving up is a tactic for success then what metrics are you using to make those pivots in your life and in your corporate strategy?
At the beginning of 2017 and in 2018 I posted two articles making the case to fail fast and kill your projects in Q1. As we go boldly into 2019 I make the same plea but this time I recommend that you create metrics for failure as a way to be transparent about you decision making and embrace the powerful learnings from failure.
A simple model called “the dip” by Seth Godin provides insight into corporate pivots, changes and program augmentation. If every employee understood the dip and the criteria for failure then they might understand the decision process of executives and thus seek learning, failure and accelerate their work.
The thesis of the Dip is:
Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt—until they commit to beating the right Dip.
Every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out fun…then gets really hard, and not much fun at all. You might be in a Dip—a temporary setback that will get better if you keep pushing. But maybe it’s really a Cul-de-Sac—a total dead end. What really sets superstars apart is the ability to tell the two apart.
Abandon the non-dips
Abandon activities that look like Cul-de-Sac or Cliff curves. Anything worth doing has a dip. The other two curves represent markets and activities that aren’t worth focusing on.
There are times when you want to abandon activities that have dips too. Godin suggests identifying all activities, you’re working on, that have dips. Then ask: What will happen if you continue with these activities? Will you become an expert? Are you willing to slog through the difficulty of the dip? If not, drop it.
Getting through the dip is hard. Only people who want to be the best, lean into the dip and get through it. At the end of the book, Godin gives some questions to ask yourself.
• Is this a Dip, a Cliff, or a Cul-de-Sac?
• If it’s a Cul-de-Sac, how can I change it into a Dip?
• Is my persistence going to pay off in the long run?
• When should I quit? I need to decide now, not when I’m in the middle of it, and not when part of me is begging to quit.
• If I quit this task, will it increase my ability to get through the Dip on something more important?
• If I’m going to quit anyway, is there something dramatic I can do instead that might change the game?
Because we can’t predict the future we have to enter our endeavors with knowing that a dip will occur.
Misperception occurs because we confuse the purpose and intent of BHAG verses the tenuous nature of tactics and strategies toward the BHAG.
While it is doubtful that any organization would change the purpose and intent of their company or BHAG on a quarterly basis, they should and do change tactics, sometimes quarterly based upon a myriad of factors in order to get through the dip toward their BHAG.
It is what you are learning from crossing the dip that gives executives less ambiguous information about how to adjust tactic toward the BHAG. Learning and changing is a good thing. More transparently around when to change based upon real data calms the sea of ambiguity and should be the virtue that all organizations seek.
There are two things organization should do to make it through failure.
1. Create metrics for failure
2. Create and maintain a learning culture.
First you should create metrics that help you adapt and react to failure in the most positive way.
In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford outlines the wrong way to react to failure:
As soon as things start going wrong, our defense mechanisms kick in, tempting us to do what we can to save face. Yet, these very normal reactions — denial, chasing your losses, and hedonic editing — wreak havoc on our ability to adapt.
“It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we’ve made a mistake and try to put it right. It requires you to challenge a status quo of your own making.”
Chasing your losses.
We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it. For example, poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.
When we engage in “hedonic editing,” we try to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn’t matter, bundling our losses with our gains or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.
Frankly, most of us find comfort in our denial. We can rationalize that life is just difficult and other people and companies seem to have all of the luck.
To learn more about creating metrics for failure click this link.
Secondly there is value in creating a learning culture to get you through the dip.
The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.” So said Amy C. Edmondson, a Professor at Harvard Business School. Edmondson continues her brilliant insight and research:
“Most executives I’ve talked to believe that failure is bad (of course!). They also believe that learning from it is pretty straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and exhort them to avoid similar mistakes in the future—or, better yet, assign a team to review and write a report on what happened and then distribute it throughout the organization.
These widely held beliefs are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward.”
Edmondson continues “Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures. They should insist that their organizations develop a clear understanding of what happened—not of “who did it”—when things go wrong. This requires consistently reporting failures, small and large; systematically analyzing them; and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment.
In short, exceptional organizations are those that go beyond detecting and analyzing failures and try to generate intelligent ones for the express purpose of learning and innovating. It’s not that managers in these organizations enjoy failure. But they recognize it as a necessary by-product of experimentation. They also realize that they don’t have to do dramatic experiments with large budgets. Often a small pilot, a dry run of a new technique, or a simulation will suffice.” This is how we learn through the dip.
Ambiguity can be organic and artificially created by lack of communication. For executives the message for change should include a recognition that a dip will occur, that metrics and criteria will be used to navigate through the dip and changing tactics to get through a dip is normal and doesn’t threaten the overall intent and BHAG of the organization.
The real question that plagues organizations is when to change or quit something that is not working. Being transparent rather than covert with those decisions is what inspires confidence in leadership and helps everyone learn and navigate through ambiguity.
As you go through the dip you need to decide now on your failure points. What we really need to do is to not only learn from failure, but frame everything we learn into a meaningful sustainable construct that make learning inevitable, sustainable and constructive.
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