Can failure be the source of success?
This is a true story…
Donna (real person, fictitious name) was someone who had previously failed in managing a project but was now ready to put herself out there again. After all, the project she led before was something no one else had even tried to do. She was at peace with what happened.
Now she was asking to manage a new project. She wanted a chance to prove herself. Even though she had failed the last time, she had learned and was confident she would succeed this time around.
Her boss, John (real person, fictitious name), wanted to give her another chance. She had been a high performer in her regular job. That was why he chose her the first time.
But she had failed.
It wasn’t just that the team didn’t meet their goal. The team fell apart. He still didn’t understand what happened. She was very good at her job. She seemed to be a great manager of the people who reported to her. So what the heck happened?
He was not at all confident in her ability to manage this project successfully.
So while he wanted to support her and say yes, he was concerned he would be setting the organization, as well as each of them as individuals, up to fail. This was a really important project to the organization. The stakes were high.
When I asked John if he believed she could be successful in this project, he said he thought it was possible. But he had no way to be sure.
How could he ask her to promise a result that even he did not know how to produce himself? Besides, he still didn’t understand why she failed with the team the last time. Was it worth the risk to give her another shot?
He truly believed that one failure does not mean you are a failure.
Except in organizations one failure all too often means you are a failure even if no one says it out loud. You may not lose your job, but a visible failure can cut off your chances to progress. This was one of those cultures.
While there is a lot of talk about encouraging risk taking in many organizations, I think the biggest challenge is not about getting people to take the first risk. Rather it is being willing to take a chance on someone or something for the second time. Any conversation about risk taking will be nothing more than lip service if we cannot: (1) learn from our failures and (2) support people in succeeding the next time.
The harder part seems to be supporting people in succeeding the next time. I believe this requires us to increase the level of integrity and accountability in our relationships.
How do you do that?
Start with these 3 Principles:
- Take Personal Responsibility for BOTH the Results AND the Relationship
- Negotiate for What You Need to be Successful and Satisfied
- Choose Authentically
Here’s how they were applied in this real life situation.
Take Personal Responsibility for BOTH the Results AND the Relationship
John set up a meeting to talk with Donna about her request face to face. He was completely honest about his concerns regarding her ability to succeed given what had happened.
While we may feel uncomfortable doing so, it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend something in the past did not happen. Honesty and transparency is required if you want to take responsibility for your relationships.
He was also honest about questioning his ability to support her: he did not fully understand why she failed the first time. He didn’t even know what to tell her to do differently.
Negotiate for What You Need to be Successful and Satisfied
John set some clear conditions for what he needed from her to be willing to give her the reigns of the project.
They included: weekly update meetings, a commitment from Donna that she would ask for help early and often. He also made it clear that she had to meet the first milestone or he would replace her as the team leader.
Donna also made requests. First, she asked for a coach to provide the insight to her management and leadership that Dan could not provide. She also asked to be given the authority to choose her team members. He agreed to the coach and after some discussion they agreed they would choose the team together.
Both Donna and John had to have a complete enough conversation to be able to choose. It required they honestly aired their concerns with each other. While Donna asked to run the project she was not awake to the perceived risk by John, other senior people in the department, or even to her own identity.
John had to make sure she went into this with her eyes wide open. He couldn’t authentically say yes until he was clear she understood this. He also needed to put conditions in place to support her in being successful as well as manage the risk to the department.
How did it turn out?
Donna and her team achieved an unprecedented success in their department. Employee Opinion Survey scores in the chosen category increased by 20%. Perhaps more importantly, they could see ample evidence of that change in the day to day interactions of people in their department.
John and Donna had worked together to use a failure as a foundation from which to build trust and create success.
What do you think it takes to rise from the ashes of failure?
To learn more about the principles covered in the post check out The Art of Accountability. The next Webinar Series starts in October.
And stay tuned for the next post where I will cover what Donna had to learn to be successful.