US culture - and maybe others - have this idea that failure is a binary state. You go from the status quo, and when expectations - unchangeable expectations - aren’t met, all at once, you’re a failure.
Maybe this is a big “failure is not an option” project for work. Maybe even for the nation, as Healthcare.gov sounds like it was (read Clay Shirky’s article on Heathcare.gov and the gulf between planning and reality). Maybe this is your business, your startup.
Failure from the outside looks stunning: “But I thought everything was going so well?!” From family to neighbors to your boss’s boss to the President of the US (in the extreme example of Healthcare.gov), everyone is confused.
As the person that failed, sometimes it feels like the first time you brought a school assignment with a big red “F” back to your parents. Horrible. Like that time as a 5 year old you said fu** and got your mouth washed out with soap. Horrible. Four letter word horrible.
It shouldn’t be this way. Failure is not a four letter word. Failure is only a four letter word if you let it be.
Failure is the world telling you that you should stop doing what you’re doing and be better instead. (True story)..
The dread around failure is so strong. For the remainder of this entry I’ll use “failure” to mean something didn’t work and another approach is needed. I’ll use “Failure” to mean the big, red F on your paper feeling. Failure the four letter word.
Personal story time: I spent most of the last decade running my own business. I failed three or four times (I ran out of money or clients). Three times I picked myself up (metaphorically), adjusted my approach and went on for a few more years.
The last time I decided to get a “real” job. I evaluated what was - and was not - working for the past 3 months and decided I needed to totally change my status quo, because my status quo wasn’t working in the current environment. So I got a real job and continued my business as a nights-and-weekends affair (just taking some care to avoid conflict of interest with my employer. And I sent my first employer a good bit of business that way anyway.)
Even though I’m not working full time for myself any more I wouldn’t say I Failed. Each time I realized things weren’t working, made some changes, got a plan forward, and didn’t let it get to me (much).
Gods knows I borrowed enough money from myself or others during these times, to get me through. I’m still paying off some of those debts, even 10 years later. Lean times suck. Even though my business went from a business to a nights-and-weekends second job I haven’t Failed.
God know that during the times I failed I wrote probably 50-75 pages of “how to start your own software consultancy and not suck”, along with a few notebooks about where I want to personally be in life. I read books about business (E-Myth Revisited, Wealthy Freelancer, etc). I turned my analysis inward, towards something I could affect.
Another personal story: I got married a few years back. We had certain plans (about the reception, for example) that didn’t work out. We had initially planned an outdoor reception, but it snowed two days before our reception. Earliest snowfall in 50 years, that kind of storm.
My bride and I figured out a plan B (which didn’t work), then a plan C (which did). (Church fellowship hall for the win.) Instead of throwing Bridezilla style tantrums we found alternatives and got it working. Everyone had a good time. Sure, our idea for an outdoor reception failed, but our reception didn’t Fail. “failure” was absolutely an option, but we were still going to have hungry people we needed to feed at 5:00 PM. We adjusted our own expectations.
At work, struggling nights and weekends for a project and not hitting it
doesn’t shouldn’t mean Failure. It does mean that your unease and uncertainity about the deadline should be transmitted up the chain of command through management layers to the project stakeholders (where management applies whatever amount of spin it needs to be save face everywhere). Soft launching your app or website, doesn’t make you a failure, it makes your careful. Careful to get things right when you do finally announce yourself to the world. Careful to give people something that’s working, even if you wish you could give more. Nobody will remember the week or so where things really sucked and people had to double-enter everything, or you needed to use a queue system to launch your iPhone app.
Sometimes Failure isn’t from the technicians, but from management. Engineers in the Columbia shuttle mission knew the O-rings were subject to failure in extreme temps, and reported it upwards, but nobody listened. (Similar things happened with healthcare.gov, apparently). If you tell your bosses at work that a project will mean working three times as hard as you’ve traditionally been working, that the project will take heroic efforts to meet expectations, and you are ignored, that is a Failure of management. Failure to have a plan B or plan C, Failure to realize that the technicians have learned more about the project while doing the project than the planners knew at the beginning. Failure to learn from a changing environment.
In short, Failure to realize that “failure” is not a four letter word.