Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Failure is not only an option, its sometimes the required option

I work with a friend who doesn't like to screw up. As someone who also doesn't like to screw up, I'm down with that. However, this person wants to be a lead, which is a type of manager, and if you've never screwed up, when you become a lead, screwing up is a) inevitable and b) freakier than hell if you've never done it before.

Unlike code or sofas that will take whatever you or your cats do to them (spoken as a woman whose cat almost succeeded in editing the registry of her husband's laptop with the power of a sunbeam and her butt), with people there is always, always, always, a wrong answer.

I've talked in previous posts about the fact that some people may have a bad day and that can affect their performance and interaction. Sometimes people are ignorant, as well--they've never encountered whatever and just don't know the pitfalls. Sometimes people are scared, and they hide that by puffing up and digging in. Whatever the reason, people are the part of the equation that makes managing fail (as well as succeed). You will do something wrong. You will do something perceived to be wrong. You will FAIL at something. Someone who works for you will FAIL and you'll wonder where you failed. Basically, failure is a part of life, yes, but it's a bigger part of your life if you're responsible for anyone (like a team) or anything (like a project).

To steal from the remade Batman franchise: "Why do we fall? So we can learn how to get up." I'd not go so far as to fall down a well and be attacked by frightened bats trying to escape from you, but its basically true: you fell on your butt several times before you learned your balance to walk. You may have skinned your knees a bit getting the hang of the bike. Hopefully the dents in the car were invisible or hideable from your parents when you were learning to drive. And I dearly hope the person or persons you love have forgiven you for that time when you (insert the incident in question that was definitively a mistake).

Management is a lot like that. When you are a manager, people expect that you will not screw up, so the pressure is even worse.

What I'm here to tell you is that: a) you will screw up, b) its okay if you screw up as long as you c) handle the screw up properly.

I've talked in previous entries about handling personnel issues; I have a few posts on "Screw Ups Happen." What this is about is to clarify that there is a purpose to failing, even in management, and that is to learn from the failure. Many of us want to just bury it and move on, but the truth of the matter is 99% of the time the failure is somehow connected to other humans (I'm assuming robots for that other 1%, but don't quote me). You need to know how that failure happened for yourself, so it doesn't happen again.

And, as I noted in my article on the Blame Game, I don't mean "who did this" but "what part did I play in this?" When folks you manage fail, you fail. When you're connected to a project with a failure, there is typically something you can learn so that a project you work on doesn't fail in the same way again.

Failure, therefore, is not only an option, it's sometimes required.

This is not to say that you should run right out and start screwing things up for learning opportunities. Trust me, failure will find you and yours all its own, without having to invite it in. Also, your manager generally frowns on you encouraging failure as what she/he pays you for is quite the opposite.

When a failure or potential failure comes up--from a comment that got your back up to a full fledged missed deadline--go somewhere private and react to what happened as you need to do so. Don't be self indulgent (it's not all day thing), but its normal and human to react, and its best not to react where normal humans can see you, as how you react will often guide how your team reacts. You want to, whenever possible, be calm and prepared for them, so they can be calm and prepared in return.

After you've reacted, do your clean up; I have lots of great advice in my Blame Game column and my Screw Ups Happen columns.

After you've done your clean up, go do something completely different and rest your brain. Come back the next day to review the failure itself.

Now look at what happened and ask yourself:
  • What actually happened?
  • How did it get to this point?
  • Can I make a guess at the motivations of the other people involved who made the initial request or requests that led to this?
  • What do I know now that I didn't know before this happened?
  • can I make it part of my normal routine to learn what I know now that I didn't know then (if humanly possible; no one expects you to anticipate Earthquakes or the invention of actual cold fusion)?
  • What are the best take-aways from this failure that aren't self-deprecating?
That last bit "aren't self-deprecating" is important; you need to work with facts, not feelings, and beating yourself up about a failure is the quickest way to associate pain and regret with the memory, rather than learning and understanding. Your brain does not like pain and regret, and will, unless you are diligent, quietly erode the memory until all the unpleasantness is a faint memory, taking the valuable knowledge with it. Don't let that happen to you, or you're likely to experience another failure like this one, made worse as all the memories rush back. Over time you'll start building up a sort of warning system whereby you'll recongize the warning signs of potential failure and start asking those questions (and others you've honed yourself) BEFORE the failure happens. For example, "Why am I being invited to these meetings? These guys NEVER listen to me!" is the potential ledge of failure. What has actually happened: folks that know that you typically have different opinions than they do have invited you to a regular meeting. How did it get to this point: maybe they actually want the devil's advocate (after all, no one enjoys admitting they need someone they don't agree with, but they do need them). Can I make a guess at the motivations involved: either they respect my opinion despite rarely praising it or they are setting me up to fail in some other way (possibly to get rid of a dissenting opinion); in either case, I should investigate to best prepare myself. What can I do to best prepare myself for what may be coming up next: dig out my email threads and maybe invite an additional, neutral person to the meetings (at least the first one), and summarize the meeting discussion after the meetings. Document, document, document both gives you information when you need it in 6 months--We decided what? When? Why?--and in the event that this might actually be the precipice of failure, provides you a softer landing if/when you fall--Look, this is what we talked about on this date, I'm not crazy...in that way, anyway. What are the best take-aways from this situation: this might be bad, but this could also be a great way to use our differences to make the team/product stronger.

No one likes to fail. The desire to avoid failure frequently spawns fear which can be harnessed into good things like planning. But you will fail. Probably at least big time once in your life. Not only do you need to get yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to whatever you were doing, you also need to know how to take a critical eye to the failure in question and learn from it. This is the huge divider between those who can lead well, and those who are lead (but may be put in leadership positions): they take experience in whatever form it may come, and they use it effectively.

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