Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Five steps for converting failure into success in 2012

How are you going to convert the failures of 2011 into success in 2012?

Many of today’s greatest business minds extol the benefits of failure. A search of the Harvard Business Review site yields hundreds of articles and blog posts about failure with titles like, “Strategies for Learning from Failure” and “Enjoy the Fun of Failure.” I even stumbled upon – a website devoted to failure.  There is clearly much to be gained from making mistakes but as I reflected upon the ups and downs of 2011, this was the thought that came to me:

Past failure can only lead to future success if you’re prepared to forgive yourself.

I know it sounds self-help-ish and the truth is that it does borrow from some insight I’ve gained from other parts of my life. Many pundits make it seem like failure almost magically leads to success. But I think there’s a strong business case to be made for the process of forgiveness being the only means by which failure can be converted to success. Here, then are my five steps to business forgiveness and success in 2012.

1. Acknowledge you have failed. Many initiatives die with a whimper and not a bang. You don’t officially declare them deceased; you just stop working on them. They gradually disappear from your to-do lists. Sometimes, we’re given a helping hand in accepting defeat. A domain renewal notice or worse, a loan call, may force you to make a decision. Otherwise it’s easy to procrastinate. So, start by taking an honest look at all the projects that you started in the past year (or earlier) and officially brand those that aren’t going anywhere a failure. You can’t possibly benefit from the experience until you do that.

2. Do the post mortem. Now that you’ve deep-sixed a number of initiatives, take an honest look at what went wrong. What could you have done differently? Even if on the surface, your action or inaction didn’t lead to the project’s demise, it’s worth it to think creatively about missed opportunities. You may want to wait a while before doing this. It may take some distance before you have the objectivity to be brutally honest. Alternatively, you may want to enlist the help of others and have them give you their analysis.

3. Take responsibility. Calculate the cost of the failure – in dollars, in time, in relationships. Don’t forget about the opportunity costs – other projects that lagged or languished. Don’t spare yourself. You need to know the real consequences of initiatives that have gone south.

4. But give yourself a break. First of all, there were probably lots of things that you did that were perfectly right. Take credit for them. There were likely many mistakes that you made that you couldn’t possibly have avoided. You may not have had the right experience. It may have been the first time using particular skills or levels of complexity. There may have been key information that you could only have known once you started.

In all likelihood, the actions of others and just plain luck also played a role. It wasn’t all your fault and you needn’t feel guilty for those things over which you had no control. This kind of analysis may allow you to see important signposts in future projects.

5. List the lessons learned. Now you’re at a point where you can really learn from your mistakes. Sum up the process above by formally or informally taking stock of the knowledge and experience that you’ve gained. More importantly, consider the ways in which you can put it to use on current and upcoming projects.

There’s inevitably a great deal of guilt and regret associated with failure. Taking the steps above will allow you to dispel those emotions, forgive yourself and truly convert failure into success in the coming year. Enjoy 2012.

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