The shimmer and shine of failures

Failures. We don’t talk about them much. We don’t put them on our CVs, and we don’t open our cover letter, job interview or project pitch referencing them.

But maybe we should.

Risky? Perhaps.

Sassy? Yes.

Illustrative of our capacity to pay attention, learn and evolve by looking at situations squarely in the eye and having the courage to keep going, this time with more understanding and skill? Definitely.

And the project scouts, headhunters, team builders, above average bosses and great human relations professionals know how very important it is. As a matter of fact, fearless learning from failures could be the most important ability you have.

It goes something like this: if you have any real experience in the work world then you have surely been part of a project that has failed (meaning it didn’t meet objectives, either those formally stated or personally desired). And you know what? That’s great. That’s absolutely perfect. There is no better opportunity to learn—no better opportunity to put your analytical, critical and creative thinking skills to use than to take a failed project apart.

Maybe this is not initially easy for you, and that’s understandable. Here’s what you can do right now. Sit back, push your chair away from your computer a bit or set down whatever screen you have in your hands, raise your eyes upward toward your brows and think: what was the last or the biggest project failure of mine? Not a mistake, not a misstep, not a bad decision, but a true failure. Meaning, you did not do what you set out to do—either with your own money and resources or those of others, it doesn’t matter for this exercise. The only criterion is that the project did not work. Period.

Now that you have that in mind, let any surge of emotion that comes up pass through you like the wind that passes through the leaves of a tree, to then become still and calm again. Spend a few minutes thinking about what went wrong, strategically speaking. No blaming other people. Think objectively and be cool about it. Deconstruct the whole project if necessary; find the parts that were weak, the blind spots, see what was missing or overly abundant. Name it all, honestly. Free of guilt and resentment. Examine it, cut and polish it like a diamond in the rough. Discover its size, dimension, shape and contours and let the opportunity shine so brightly that you become mesmerized by its reflective brilliance. You, my friend, have discovered a treasure.

Why can we learn even more from a failed project than a successful one? Because there is precise and detailed information about the exact type of action, absence, oversight, thinking or strategic misstep that lead a project down the wrong road or a road to nowhere. This information is your treasure. It will turn your strategic toolbox into a treasure chest, and if you do this exercise honestly and with genuine curiosity, you will never ever make those same mistakes again. Your next projects will be strategically clearer and have a greater chance of meeting goals and of being successful.

Still finding this unpleasant? Would you like an example from my bag of experiences? OK, here goes.

My sparkling failure, the one that taught me more than any other work experience was a multimedia product—whose results and impact, in my mind, were to be big, idea-shifting changes in human understanding. That did not happen. Why? Because after the project was completed, and after some time had passed, I clearly saw that my team and I had not clearly identified all of the necessary end-point objectives. I got so energetically involved in the logistics, production and the process that I let a blind spot grow and eclipse the need for developing a clear map for end-point distribution or fluid public access to the product. There was no detailed plan of how we would reach consumer-end goals and no way to know if, in fact, we had reached those goals. Like they say, if you don’t have a map, any road will do. And if you don’t have a way to measure the results, well, you never know what they were. Heck, you can even make them up. So, to this day an untold number of the product of this multimedia project still sits in the warehouse, years later. The team disbanded, and I, the project leader, have no clear idea about what its impact was.

Yes, we produced a beautiful product, but that is never the end-point. Never.

I still softly shudder when I think about it, though now with an inevitable smile and shaking of my head. I learned so much, and I know that I will never, ever, make those mistakes again. And it became deeply engrained how easy it is to make such simple strategic mistakes, even for a card-carrying strategist like me.

Take a little time to think about one of your shimmering, shining failures. And learn. I promise, after a while you will be smiling.

The people who have shunned their “failures”, or simply blamed others, or have walked away from the experience without ever glancing back, or who eternally writhe in their pain and suffering, will never be the creators and movers of great projects—the ones that make a difference—large or small.

You, on the other hand, will have a pocket full of diamonds.

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