Category Archives: Failure

Premature Judging

Should a new home construction project be judged when only its blueprint exists?  How about when the site has been prepared?  What about when the materials like wood, rebar, and electrical conduit are delivered?

Should we wait to judge the home build until the framing is complete?  Should we wait until the walls and roof are added?  Or, wait until all the windows are installed?  What about the paint and other finishing touches on the house?  Should you wait for those to be completed?

Can you judge the success of the home build before it’s finished?

When making chocolate chip cookies, do you judge the success of the cookies while mixing the ingredients?  How about when the chocolate chips are poured into the batter?

What if the recipe called for real butter, but you only have that non-diary butter substitute that’s supposed to be healthier than butter?  Are your cookies doomed at that point?  Should you call-off the project and declare it a failure?

Assuming you’ve made it past the butter/non-dairy butter issue, is it right to judge the cookies after they’re spooned out onto the cookie sheet, but not yet baked?

Just before placing those filled cookie sheets into the preheated oven, is that the time to re-evaluate the entire cookie-making process to determine if it’s failing?  Should you call a meeting to discuss whether the cooking temperature listed in the recipe is the correct one for your cookies?

Houses and cookies are obvious examples of “projects” that have a lot of moving parts.  They build from a set of raw ingredients, mixed with time and effort, into a completed item.

What about less obvious events in our lives?  When’s the right time to judge these for success or failure (using whatever measures you’ve chosen)?

  • new job
  • new business
  • new business strategy
  • new information system
  • new software development project
  • new friends
  • new marriage
  • new workout regimen
  • new hobby
  • new home

The easiest approach is to prematurely judge, declare failure and decide who to blame.  Failure is comforting.  The status quo is easy.

The new thing is never easy.  Creating something new is almost always uncomfortable.

When we judge too early, failure soon follows.

By the way, the cookies were amazing, but not until they came out of the oven.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Blame and Our Ego

“If you get your ego in your way, you will only look to other people and circumstances to blame.” –Jocko Willink

Here’s a thought experiment…

Looking back over the past few weeks (or months, or years), how many times did you blame:

  • someone
  • some thing
  • traffic
  • an injury
  • a disability
  • the weather
  • the economy
  • the government
  • your boss
  • your employee
  • social media
  • a company
  • a bad memory
  • anything but yourself?

No matter the subject, there are plenty of candidates for our blame…as long as we can aim it outward.

Our ego prefers blaming “the other” rather than accepting responsibility.  Life’s easier that way.

Blame doesn’t just apply to things that happened in the past.  Blame is most powerful (and crippling) when it prevents something from happening in the future:

  • I won’t be able to make it out there tomorrow. The traffic is just too crazy at that time.
  • I hate this job, but I don’t have time to learn a new trade.
  • I’d love to help you move, but with my bad back, I wouldn’t be very helpful.
  • There’s no way I’d ever start my own business in this economy. Besides, who needs all the government regulations and hassle?
  • It’s way too cold out there to go for a walk today.
  • I’d love to travel more, but there’s no way my boss would ever give me the time off.

How many times have you used blame to avoid doing something new, or something that could fail?

Blame is useful when it establishes a foundation for improvement.  When it represents a first step toward identifying root causes that can be solved.

Beyond that, blame has very little value, except stroking our ego (and keeping us nice and warm in our cacoon of status quo).

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Time for a Lens Change?

Way back in junior high (in the last century), I learned about photography with 35mm SLR cameras.  These were the “real thing.”  They were a far cry from the cheap Instamatics that everyone I knew used at the time.

We learned about shutter speeds, f-stops, light meters, focus points, passive and active lighting, shadows, framing, composition, film types, and lenses.

Did we want to capture the action close-up, or in the distance?  Blur the action, or stop it?  Shadow the subject, or light it?  Black and white, or color?  Grainy or smooth?  Focus on the foreground or the background?  Capture the subject from the left, or right?

It didn’t matter if we were photographing a mountain, a flower, a person, or a can of tomatoes.  Using all the tools at our disposal, we controlled what happened in each photo.

Don’t even get me started on developing film in a darkroom.  We learned about that too.  More ways to control the image that appears in the photo.  For younger readers, darkrooms are the place where the exposed film was transformed into photos.  Using various methods, we could edit an image like you can today in your phone’s photo editor or Photoshop.

The main lesson about all this wasn’t the tools and techniques of photography. It was the realization that the camera was only a tool to capture a moment.  That moment, with all its beauty, drama, imperfections, and emotions.

More specifically, the camera captures a feeling that comes from the image and our memory of that feeling.  The image is merely a pathway to our feelings about the subject.

We capture moments and feelings every day.  Usually without a camera.  We control how these moments and feelings appear on the canvas that matters the most.  In our heart and in our mind.

If the world seems to be against you, and all you see is ugliness and despair, that’s probably because of the way you’re choosing to see the world.

If everything is amazing and perfect, that’s also a result of the way you’re choosing to see the world.

Neither view is 100% accurate.  Reality has its ups and downs.  We face challenges and triumphs, victories and defeats, every day.

The key is to understand that we have way more to do with the way these moments are captured and interpreted than anyone or anything in our world.

We control our settings.  We control our lenses.  We choose where we focus.

Ultimately, we choose how to frame our moments.  Not the other way around.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

The Reasons We Quit…

Are usually not the real reasons.

Sure, we’ll have our story about how someone or something created the untenable situation that pushed us to quit.

We can talk about how continuing would have been a waste of our time and energy.

We can even describe how the emotional toll was so great that we needed to make the change before some type of permanent damage occurred.

All these reasons contain elements of truth.  But, not the whole truth.

The whole truth lies in the balance of authority and responsibility.

Authority and responsibility live on opposite sides of life’s biggest equation.  When we perceive that the authority we have matches up with the responsibility we’re carrying, we feel balanced.  Satisfied.

But, get them out of whack, and our dissatisfaction begins to climb.  Left unattended, the dissatisfaction we feel (subconsciously at first) will begin to overtake our patience.  The cascade toward departure begins.

A world where we have ultimate authority and no responsibility would be nice.  The “power” to do whatever we want without any ownership of the outcomes.  Of course, this is a fantasy world.

Having authority over anything means having responsibility.

The key is the balance.

So, back to the quit or don’t quit decision:

If we stay the course, we’ll be forced to take ownership.  We’ll need to assume authority and expend a ton of emotional energy.  We can’t blame the “other.”  When we decide not to quit, we’re deciding that it’s okay to be responsible for making the situation a success (however that gets defined in our heads).

Quitting is the easy way out of this “authority-responsibility” conundrum.  It requires a lot less energy and eliminates our risk of failure.  It doesn’t matter that the act of quitting may be an admission of failure in the first place.  That’s just a sunk cost.  The key is how much emotional energy we’ll have to expend in the future.

Why does any of this matter?  We aren’t planning to quit any time soon.  It’s not in our nature.

True, but what about everyone around you?  What about the people who report to you?  What about your teammates?  What about your friends?

It turns out they’re working through this same authority-responsibility equation in their own lives.

And guess who has both the authority and responsibility to help them with balancing their equation.

You.

 

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

The Dodge

Here’s a paradox about productivity:

I’m often most productive when dodging the thing I’m supposed to be doing.

I always know when I’m avoiding a task, even if tell myself I’m not.  That task that seems undoable, requires multiple synchronized steps, requires difficult decisions, involves lots of other people who may not be “on board,” or the task with a nebulous benefit way out in the future.

It’s easy to dodge these challenging tasks and focus on the simple stuff.  That list of to-dos I can knock out in an afternoon.

I know I’m not doing the tough thing, but at least I’m being productive.  Nobody can accuse me of being lazy if I just keep moving.

This is the curse of staying busy, while not accomplishing anything.

I can dodge all I want.  I can tell myself stories to justify my delay.

It doesn’t matter, the tough task will still be there, waiting.

Here’s another paradox:

When I finally face the tough task, the one I’ve been avoiding, it usually starts to look a lot easier.  The next indicated steps begin to show themselves.  The unwieldy becomes doable.

The dodge makes the tough task appear bigger than it really is.

It comes down to fear.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of the difficult.  Fear of embarrassment.  Fear of failure.  Fear of success (yes, this is a thing).

What if this task is harder than I imagined?  What if it owns me?  What if I can’t do it?  What if someone sees me fail?

The answer to all these questions is, “So what.  Get started anyway.  Stop dodging and start doing.”

“Knowing what to do is very, very different than actually doing it.” – Seth Godin

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

 

 

 

Yahtzee Lessons

I was probably seven when Grandma Anne taught me to play Yahtzee.  I’d spend the night at her house with my cousin, Devin, and invariably, we’d be at her kitchen table, playing Yahtzee all afternoon.

It’s a simple game…on the surface.

Each player gets thirteen turns to complete their score card.

The top section of the score card consists of numbers 1 thru 6.  You need to roll three ones, three twos, three threes, etc. to get your “minimums.”  You could also roll four fives (or four of anything), which comes in handy if you were only able to roll two threes on a previous turn.  The idea on the top section is to score at least 63 total points, so you can get the 35-point bonus.

Yahtzee! scores 50 points.  That’s when you get all five dice to be the same during your turn.  Some players focus solely on getting Yahtzee at the expense of everything else.  The theory being that 50 points is huge, and if you get a second Yahtzee that one’s worth 100.  Of course, the odds of getting a Yahtzee are against you, but the payoff is big when it happens.

Grandma was always clear that while a Yahtzee is nice, the most consistent winning strategy is to get your bonus on the top section.  Rely on those 35 points as your foundation.  A Yahtzee, or a big four-of-a-kind on the bottom section of the score card would be icing on the cake.

Relying on the foundational 35 and less on the Yahtzee probably explains many of the best decisions I’ve made in life.

Each turn, you roll five dice to start.  You get two more rolls in your turn.  Depending on what the dice show after your first roll, you may not need to take those additional rolls.  Life is good when you roll a complete large straight or a Yahtzee on your first roll!

The bottom section of the score card has three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, full house, small straight, large straight, Yahtzee! and Chance.

Chance comes into play when you’re rolling for something that doesn’t happen.  Like, you already have your small straight, and now you’re rolling to complete a large straight.  Unfortunately, that last number doesn’t come up.  You count-up the total of all the dice and enter that number into Chance.

Chance is a lot like a mulligan in golf.  A do-over.  In this case, you get to capture some points even though the rolls failed to produce.  They say there are no do-over’s in life, but I disagree.  There are plenty of second chances, if you’re willing to ask for forgiveness (mostly from yourself), learn from your mistake(s) (hopefully), and try again.

How often do three sixes come up in a roll?  How likely is it that you’ll be able to roll that one specific number you need to complete your straight or full house?  When you’ve used up your Chance spot, and your rolls have led to nothing, which slot are you willing to sacrifice to end this turn?  Odds and decisions.

Yahtzee seems like a game of chance.  It’s much more.  It’s a game of decisions and imperfect trade-offs.

After a while, we graduated to playing Triple Yahtzee, which entails playing three games simultaneously.  You get 39 turns.  One column is worth triple points, one is double points, and the last column is regular points.

The decisions and trade-offs from the “Single Yahtzee” game are in play, but now you want to maximize the point values in your triple column and consider sacrificing some of the slots in the regular column.

Don’t be fooled.  Mastering Triple Yahtzee isn’t just triple the challenge.  As in real life, something that should be only triple the challenge is often exponentially more challenging than it first appears.

What is the answer to all this exponential chaos?  Methodical effort and focused strategy.  The priorities and the strategy are defined.  The decisions that follow from these priorities become clear.  Maybe even simple.

There’s a certain genius in showing a seven-year-old the game of Yahtzee.  They haven’t fully formed their approach to decision making.  Success, failure, decisions, and sacrifices are in play with every turn.  Excellent practice for the real thing.

Yahtzee illustrates how something completely random and driven by chance can be managed within a solid set of priorities and strategies.

I didn’t just get to learn about rolling dice, counting numbers, and making decisions.  Grandma gave me the gift of lasting memories that I cherish to this day, playing Yahtzee at her kitchen table.

Now that I have six (!) grandkids of my own, I can’t wait to teach them the game of Yahtzee…and then, Triple Yahtzee!

Photo by Lea Böhm on Unsplash

 

 

Five Stages of Problem Solving

I could write how problems are opportunities in disguise (many are).

Or, I could describe all the ways we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.

But, I think it’s most useful to describe the five-stage problem-solving model that most of us follow in our day-to-day lives.  It doesn’t matter if these problems are personal or professional…the same stages are usually in play:

1. Ignore the Problem

Ignoring a problem doesn’t mean not knowing about it.  We know it’s there, but we purposely choose to ignore it.  This gives us plausible deniability.  There’s a lot of hope involved in ignoring a problem.  Our hope is that if ignored long enough, the problem will solve itself, or someone else will take ownership and find a solution.

2. Deny the Problem

This is a bit more active than ignoring the problem.  We acknowledge that something is wrong, but it isn’t really a problem.  By consciously changing our perceptions, and the perceptions of those around us, we can plausibly deny (there’s that phrase again) that a problem exists.  And, if it really is a problem, it’s not a problem for “us” to solve.

3. Blame Someone (Else)

When denial stops working, the focus shifts to ensuring we aren’t held responsible for the problem.  We aren’t ignoring or denying the problem.  But, we know we aren’t the cause, for sure. Therefore, we shouldn’t be expected to provide a solution.

The most advanced version of this stage is to not only blame someone else.  But, make sure the world knows we warned everyone that this type of problem could happen…if only someone had listened to us in the first place.  I call this person the omnipotent blame shifter.

4. Accept the Problem

We finally accept that this is a real problem.  It’s our problem, whether we caused it or not.  We own it. We also own the task of finding the best solution.  This is the trickiest stage of all…

If we caused this problem, we must now admit our weakness, our mistake, our error in judgment, our previous lack of attention or understanding.  We may even have to admit that something happened that was out of our control.

If we didn’t cause this problem, our challenge is to put aside blame, and focus on solving the problem.  We don’t have time to teach lessons at this point.  Our focus must be finding solutions to the problem we’ve just accepted.

5. Address (Fix) the Problem

Ah…we finally arrive at the solution stage.  We’ve accepted the problem.  It’s real.  It’s ours.  And, now we (and possibly a large team we’ve assembled) will fix the problem.

Ironically, this may be the easiest stage of all, even if it’s the one we’ve worked so hard to avoid. It sits patiently, waiting for us to arrive.  To focus our attention, our effort and our creativity on delivering ideas and solutions to the problem.

Imagine the energy we’d have available to solve (and prevent) problems if we didn’t waste our time ignoring them, denying them, and finding others to blame.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

 

The Sally Method Trap

Q: “What’s our approach for this year’s audit?”

A: “Sally Method.”

And that’s how an auditor can shortcut their work.  It’s a tried and true method for getting a quick start, ensuring consistency with the prior year’s audit, and making sure that’s nothing obvious gets missed.

 

Q: “What’s our big goal for the new year?”

A: “Let’s see if we can beat last year’s growth by a few percentage points.” (Sally Method)

Nobody can argue against growth, especially if it beats what we did last year.

 

“We can’t change the rules of the game.  It’s tradition to play it this way.” (Sally Method)

Tradition usually wins.

 

Sally…Same As Last Year (the second L is silent).

It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s safe.

Life outside the box that Sally creates is scary.  It’s filled with uncertainty.  It can lead to failure.  It can lead to embarrassment (something we fear more than failure).

But, it’s also the best place to find new ideas, opportunities for new exploration, and new growth.

What if we start with Sally (the easy starting point), and then opt for more?  Not only something more but something different?  Something radical, and maybe even a little nonsensical?

When we give ourselves permission to explore and fail, we unleash a power that Sally can’t imagine or contain.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

 

No Surprises…the Secret to Managing Up

“I love spontaneity, as long as it’s well-planned.”  –Says nearly everyone in business

Surprises can be great.

We love surprises when they bring unexpected wealth, unexpected fun, or unexpected comfort.

Sadly, surprises aren’t always good news:

  • Surprise! The IRS just sent you an audit letter.
  • Surprise! That small mole on your cheek is melanoma.
  • Surprise! That neighbor you thought was a nice guy is wanted in another state for armed robbery.
  • Surprise! Microsoft just added a feature to their operating system that makes your profitable utility app obsolete.
  • Surprise! Your private financial and credit information was just hacked at Equifax (well, that type of thing shouldn’t really be a surprise nowadays).
  • Surprise! Your most promising employee is leaving your company…to join your competition!
  • Surprise! The executive that “owns” your company’s contract and projects just got fired.

Surprises in business are rarely the good kind.

In fact, a “good” surprise in business can become a nightmare if you’re not prepared.

Think about that sudden and unexpected increase in demand for your service or product.  Great news!  But, now your staff is feeling overworked and things are starting to break under the pressure of all this new business.

How does all of this connect with managing up?

The number one thing your boss, and your boss’s boss (and so on) need from you is to minimize the surprises that come their way.

Does this mean you should keep information away from them?  Of course not!

It means creating an open and thorough communication path between you and your boss.

It means anticipating surprises before they happen.  Preparing for the unexpected, since you can always expect it.  I’ve seen lots of surprises that shouldn’t have been surprises at all.

Your boss needs to know when something is wrong, or about to go wrong.

Your boss needs you to be honest.  Always. Even if you’re the one causing the surprise.

If you, or someone in your organization, make an expensive mistake, your boss needs to know about it.  Now.  More importantly, your boss needs to know how you plan to learn from that mistake, and avoid a similar mistake like this one in the future.

If you see or hear something in the marketplace that can help (or hurt) your organization, your boss needs to hear from you.  Now.

The last thing you want is for your boss to learn about a problem (or a surprise, which may be the same thing) within your organization from someone else.  This does two things:

  1. Lets your boss know that you may not understand that something is going wrong, and
  2. Makes your boss wonder if you’re hiding bad news and if you can be trusted.

When I was a kid, we lived in a small 3-bedroom house.  We had a hallway that got pitch black when all the doors were shut.  Even when your eyes adjusted, there was almost no light to see where you were going.  I always had this (unfounded) fear that I might run into something, hit my head, or crack my shins on some unseen edge.

Your boss might as well be walking in that same dark hallway, whether he or she realizes it.  It’s tough to see what’s coming, and in the real world, that fear of being hit by something in the darkness is often justified.

Many of the lessons we learn from the “school of hard knocks” begin as surprises.

Lesson One:  expect the unexpected.

Lesson Two:  make sure your boss knows what’s coming.

Lesson Three:  don’t ever forget about Lesson Two, and you’ll be doing a great job of “managing up” in the process.

 

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

Mistakes Were Made

Uncle Lou, our March Madness Bracket Master and Chief Referee, sent an email to our group with “Mistakes Were Made” in his subject line.

What a great subject line, especially from our referee!

It let us all know right up front that things aren’t perfect, and it revealed the one thing many of us avoid admitting at all costs:  mistakes.

Mistakes can be the first step toward that other really bad thing in life:  FAILURE!

Mistakes and failures.  Even more powerful in our lives is the fear of making mistakes, and experiencing failures.

Fear is a good thing.  It keeps us alive.  But, it can also stop us from taking action, changing course, making corrections, or dumping one idea in exchange for another (possibly better, but maybe worse) idea.

Imagine if you wrote an email every day, or maybe just once a week with the subject:  Mistakes Were Made.  In this magical email, you’d describe the areas where you made mistakes, describe the failures that had happened that day or that week, and spell out what you learned.

As challenging as writing this email might be, once it’s written, send it to your boss.  And then send it to the people who report to you.

Does this little challenge strike fear in your heart?  That’s natural.  You should do it anyway.  By admitting your mistakes, you’re letting your boss and those who report to you know that you are human.  You are vulnerable.  You don’t have all the answers.

None of us likes to admit to our mistakes or our failures.  But, the act of admission frees us from the fear and other emotional baggage that we often carry when we make mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes and failures is the first step toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness lies on the opposite side of our fear.  Its power against fear cannot be underestimated.  A forgiving mindset, especially toward ourselves, opens us up to real learning and improvement.

I remember learning to water ski.  After a while, my brother and I were pretty good skiers.  We could go for miles and miles slaloming, jumping across the wake, and throwing up huge rooster tails without falling.  That was nice, but our dad had a different view.  He used to say that if we weren’t falling, at least occasionally, we weren’t trying to get better.

The trying was always as important (maybe more important) than the result.  Dad wanted us to always be improving, so in his way, he was asking us to welcome the mistakes that led to better performance.

It’s clear that mistakes will happen.  They come with the territory if we’re pushing our limits and getting better.

Embracing our mistakes is much better than fearing them.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Nathan Shively