Fail Is Not a Four-Letter Word

A few weeks ago, I shared five ingredients for success. I hope you found that helpful.  

One key takeaway from those “ingredients” is the importance of credibility. How many of you have been involved with a project that wasn’t successful, but the project owner or the organization claimed it was a success? How did you feel about that effort and that leader?

Over my almost 34 years in the government, I’ve experienced this several times. Personally, I looked at the leader differently after that. And, not in a favorable way. That leader lost credibility in my eyes.

Why do we claim success, even to the detriment of losing credibility? Why is FAIL a four-letter word?

Robert Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” How can we achieve greatness if we don’t acknowledge, and embrace, failure?

I was recently reading a Project Management International Conference Paper written by David Hillson: How to be a Successful Failure. His premise is that it is a mistake to think of failure as “a bad thing.” He identifies 10 Key Characteristics of Failure:

1. Failure is natural

2. Failure is universal

3. Failure is inevitable

4. Failure is pain

5. Failure is opportunity

6. Failure is learning

7. Failure is information

8. Failure is directional

9. Failure is stimulation

10. Failure is fun

Some of you are looking at this list and wondering why fun and failure would even be used in the same sentence. How can failure be fun or an opportunity? As leaders, we set the stage to encourage this attitude and culture. What do I mean by that?

Have you run a project or a meeting that didn’t go well? Not that you didn’t plan it well. You took all the right steps and it just went differently than anticipated. What did you do next? Some folks just move on. No sense crying over spilled milk, right? Others analyze and fret over it in quiet. Or, a more productive approach is to do a lessons learned session with those involved in the planning and execution.

Lessons learned sessions give leaders an opportunity to show no one is perfect; no effort is perfect. Every failure and success can be made “better.”

So, how can one run a productive Lessons Learned?

  • Start with a non-threatening, non-judgmental approach. If that means you need to step back a day or two to gather yourself, do that.
  • Provide an opportunity so folks can share “what went well” (+) and “what could be done differently” (Δ ).
  • Allow everyone to talk. Encourage those who are quiet to participate…they often have amazing insight but need encouragement to share their thoughts.
  • Then, AND THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP – do something with the input! Make some changes or tweak the process or something. Demonstrate you listened and you care.

John C. Maxwell says it best, “Credibility is a leader’s currency. With it, he or she is solvent; without it, he or she is bankrupt.”

So, what type of leader do you want to be?

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Rebecca (Becky) Mack Johnson’s government career spans almost 34 years. She’s been an SES executive for over 15 years. Her leadership experiences range from business operations’ positions to the human capital side of the house. Becky’s passion centers around helping people grow and achieve their goals. Becky considers receiving the Treasury Department’s Leadership Legacy Award in 2017 as one of her greatest accomplishments. Becky believes continual learning is essential. To practice what she preaches, Becky completed her Masters Degree in Strategic Public Relations in her early 40s. She is also an International Coaching Federation ACC certified coach and a Project Management Professional.

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