Celebrate Failure

My four-and-a half-year-old daughter reads her favorite chapters from Judy Blume’s Superfudge, filled with the antics of Fudge Hatcher. What interests me is how she learns as she reads. She struggles with a word and tries pronouncing it, not worried if it’s wrong. She asks me what a word means or what’s going on if she doesn’t understand something. She takes risks, and she doesn’t worry about the consequences.

However, she’s in kindergarten. When will she begin worrying about having the wrong answer? Hesitating before raising her hand because she’s not sure she has the right answer or the best answer? When will she stop taking these risks? And how can I encourage her to never worry about being wrong or asking questions? I’d like to learn the answers to these questions not just for her but because it would make me a better leader.

Systemic Issues

At some point in our educational system, we slowly “mold” the creativity, risk-taking behavior, and general “try and fail” learning style of children into a fear of failure. We focus on what a child did wrong instead of what they did right. We focus on and put the ultimate reward in the final product instead of the process.

Once we begin grading, feedback on an English paper typically notes all the misspellings, poor grammar, and poor structure. Generally, what gets addressed is why the paper has not lived up to expectations. What if teachers began by pointing out the great choice of words, the brilliant creativity, the flow of ideas instead? What if they closed their comments indicating how impressed they were with the topic the student tackled? The maturity with which they addressed it? Pointing out and reinforcing what someone did well is just as important as noting what could be done better.

We’re taught to put our heads down and not speak out or stand out. Don’t challenge the teacher. Don’t challenge the principal.

It’s rare for teachers in overcrowded classrooms to have time for kids who do things differently. The system can’t handle a child who challenges the status quo. We can’t even place children at the levels where they might belong, rather, we restrict them based on their age and assume they’re learning at the same level across every discipline. We tell them what is appropriate for them to be doing and rarely challenge them to go beyond the set curriculum.

Those who excel have pleased the teachers. They’ve learned what they’re supposed to learn and regurgitated it (or sometimes applied it) in the manner the school has set forth as appropriate. They’ve colored in the lines.

Why am I so focused on education? Because some of the biggest problems in corporate America begin with education.

Lack of Creativity in Corporate

Do you want employees who only color in the lines with the crayons or markers you’ve provided? What do they add to your organization? As more and more repetitive processes in business become automated, is someone who can complete those repetitive tasks, without question, really valuable?

Our educational system has failed our workers, our businesses, our ability to innovate, and our ability to be truly competitive. It hasn’t taught the traditional student to think beyond the instructions and tools they’re given. How do you change the mindset and reinvigorate the creativity of people who have spent years learning to conform to an educational system and likely a corporate environment? It’s evidence enough that professional development programs teach “critical thinking skills”; why aren’t our children being challenged with critical thinking, design thinking, and creative thinking all along?

Changing the Mindset in Your Organization

Even when a company says it wants to celebrate failure, does it really change the rules?

To expect an entire organization of individuals to “unlearn” decades of indoctrination is unrealistic.

So, where do you start? Plenty of approaches exist. Here are some options to consider as you begin the process.

  1. Rethink who you hire.
    Diversity in thought is not limited to the groups du jour. Are you thinking about people from common geographic locations? Similar academic backgrounds? Similar professional backgrounds? Similar upbringings or cultures?

    Take some risks in your hiring practices. Who has significant pursuits outside of their work life, such as music, magic, other hobbies? Who has continued their learning in a different fashion? New languages? Cooking? What skills would someone develop in the military or as an athlete?

    If your industry/required skill set is steeped in rules, who can you hire that excels at breaking rules? Who has been disruptive (ideally, in a constructive way)? If your field is more creative, who can bring structure?

    Aside from specific licensing required to perform specific types of work, do you weed out new hires by degrees? Why? Does that practice serve any purpose? Some of the most successful people in business today dropped out of traditional degree programs. Some of the most creative people have remained creative because their lives necessitated they think beyond coloring in the lines. Typically, their resumes will not showcase traditional and standard requirements.
  2. Be honest about removing systems working against new and creative ideas.
    Proposals may face many barriers even when they come from “the top.” Eliminate the “no” people; create “yes” ambassadors and ensure everyone has access to them and feels comfortable approaching them directly.

    One of the best guidelines for the people working on innovative pursuits inside a more rigid organization is “excuse them from the rules.” Too often, companies may announce that new ideas, innovation, creativity is important, but reviews, bonuses, promotions, and raises are based on new business development, billable hours, deliverables, and/or other traditional measurements. Make sure traditional expectations change, are communicated, and used.

    Finally, don’t make the only reward for someone who takes risks job retention. Don’t just plan launch parties, have a celebration when a project receives a red light. Celebrate the failure, literally: promote the lessons learned; apply these lessons; provide the individuals who led the failed initiative another high-profile project to lead. Demonstrate, in a very real and visible manner, you are celebrating the failure.
  3. Reactivate and reengage people’s minds to think differently.
    Like some companies, you may want to encourage (and reimburse) your people to investigate their creative side: take classes, pursue hobbies, and especially, learn a new instrument. But, pursuits outside of work time can be difficult to dictate.

    If you really want to see your team in action, take off the pressure. doing so can manifest in different ways. First, play — from brain teasers and puzzles to actual games. Make sure people’s minds are working and operating differently, thinking about and processing things that don’t relate to everyday work. The experience doesn’t always need to tie back to corporate lessons (but it may help build camaraderie and better internal conflict resolution without any prompts).

    When you’re ready to move past the games, a second option might prove useful: brainstorming for the “worst” ideas encourages people to participate. They’re no longer under the same pressure. When the goal is to generate bad ideas, they’re not going to be hesitant or worried about coming up with a good (or the best) idea.

    Ironically, these approaches can achieve other goals — aligning and building teams with humor, taking a break, agreeing on the absolute worst ideas, and even creating consensus around what they don’t want to do. (And, there are times when playing with some of these bad ideas may lead to something pretty good.)

So what?

In the end, if all you really do is celebrate failure, you’re doing a lot more than you’d expect. You’re promoting resilience and perseverance; you’re bringing back an incredible piece of optimism from childhood. Building this mindset throughout an organization can be infinitely valuable.


The Business Case Behind Your Legal Case

I don’t know many people (besides attorneys) who enjoy being involved in legal proceedings. But sometimes you need to assert your rights. In business, when conflict arises, you need to consider if exercising your legal rights will pay off.

Cease and Desist

Years ago, a friend of mine found another company across the country in the same line of business with the same name. Having clear rights to the name, he asserted his legal rights and sent them a “cease and desist” letter. However, after doing some research, he discovered the other company’s horrible reputation. Because both companies were using the same name for the same services, the reputation associated with the corporate name negatively affected his business. Despite a clear right, he opted to preserve his business reputation—and change his company name—and did not pursue legal action any further.

Are You a Risk?

More recently, a restaurant owner made the news for suing his financial partner for financial improprieties, fraud, corporate waste, breach of fiduciary duty, and more. Many people turn to lawsuits when they’ve been wronged and feel they need a financial remedy or simply a “win.” This option should be looked at closely: Will this owner attract other partners and investors after what becomes a public battle? From a business perspective, which is more costly: allowing a partner to walk away from the alleged wrongdoings or recovering those costs while potentially forfeiting long-term business opportunities that may be missed due to a litigious reputation?

Hit ’Em Where it Really Hurts?

Another company I read about faced a competitor who allegedly defamed the company’s brand. The partners decided that even if they were to prevail, the cost and length of a potential legal battle would not be in the company’s best interests. This company instead took a creative approach to solve their problem: the company used social media to respond to the competitor’s claims.

Is It Personal, or Can You Make This Just About the Numbers?

A partner in an accounting practice left her firm after questioning the ethics of her colleagues. She was not contractually bound to the firm, nor was she restricted by any non-compete or non-solicit agreements. While she did not approach old clients or colleagues, several tracked her down, and her former firm took her to court. In initial hearings, the judge threw out many of the issues raised. Knowing that more litigation, even with a solid case, would cost more than a settlement, she chose to appease her former partners financially and included, as part of the terms, that her former co-workers could not be sued for joining her new firm. This tactic ended an expensive and lengthy battle that precluded her from building a business and allowed her to protect her team.

The Bottom Line

When you have a business, how do you evaluate what kind of response best suits your needs? While each situation, company, and those involved create their own set of circumstances and details to consider, these basic questions are a place to start:

  • If you don’t pursue legal action now, will you be prevented from doing so in the future?
  • What have you already lost? (This may never be recovered.) What do you expect to gain?
  • If you pursue legal action, what could you lose financially and in reputation?
  • What would you lose if you don’t stand up for yourself or your company, both monetarily and in reputation? Would you be setting a poor precedent?
  • What will you lose in time and energy preparing for and appearing at legal proceedings?
  • Do better options exist for resolving the issue?
  • Are mediation or arbitration better options?
    • Is this a relationship (with the other party) you can afford to end? (Mediation may be able to resolve the issue as well as help repair a relationship hurt by conflict.)
    • Do the details of this conflict need to stay private?
  • Are you making your decisions based on emotions or the numbers? Which is more important to you?

Don’t Judge a Book
by Its Title

Many people mistake me for a great student simply because I have an impressive academic record. The truth is, by many standards, I’m an awful student. While I eventually read the books and articles assigned in my classes, I read few, if any, at the prescribed time. Studying didn’t interest me. Attendance didn’t rank much higher.

It’s easy to perceive people a certain way and categorize them quickly because of a title or a degree or something they’ve achieved. In fact, we’re wired to make these assumptions: our brains create pathways to help us process all the information it takes in regularly. We look for patterns and shortcuts to help us process more effectively.

Maybe this is part of why many people have trouble distinguishing the roles and responsibilities they should have simply because of the titles they’ve taken on or been assigned. Consider “entrepreneur” and “business owner.” It’s easy for these terms to be interchangeable. It’s also easy to think starting, leading, and running a business requires the same skills. These are all very different roles, and likely, best accomplished by very different personalities.

What’s the difference?

An entrepreneurial personality may look to build something better, solve problems differently, or, ultimately, disrupt the status quo. Most entrepreneurs flourish in adversity, crave the adrenaline rush of a gamble, welcome the unknown and uncertainty, the uncharted territory. They can generate new, sometimes revolutionary, ideas and enjoy the tumultuous process of bringing them to market. Starting new organizations, revitalizing mature ones, and capitalizing on opportunities in a unique way is a draw over stability.

Often, once things become operational, the day-to-day is too mundane. The entrepreneur wants to continue to evolve and innovate. They look for change and risk on a larger scale rather than making incremental changes to support an outdated system. Think of the impact of Apple launching the iTunes Store versus a railroad putting their schedules online and allowing you to purchase tickets electronically. While both projects may have substantial impact for the businesses and the customers, there was far less risk and originality publishing schedules online and allowing for online ticket purchases (particularly for the ones doing so as late as 2014.)

A large number of business owners would consider themselves risk averse. They don’t relish the uncertainty of a new venture. The pit in their stomachs generally exceeds the excitement of the unknown and the unlimited opportunity ahead of them. They go through the hassle of launching a business, but it’s a means to an end. Business growth is generally spurred by their financial needs — or organic growth in their customer base. However, reinventing themselves or innovating in their fields is not a priority or a desire.

We also tend to confuse leaders and managers. Both labels may refer to the person “in charge” — the one who controls activities, operations, administration, even processes. But differences exist. Managers often work within established systems and oversee operations to accomplish specific tasks and goals. Managers embrace routine, stability, and control. They tend to focus on achieving specific objectives and supervise the tasks necessary to do so.

Leaders tend to emerge from (and create) chaos. They thrive on creativity and change. Leaders tend to be visionary, inspiring, and dynamic. They motivate rooms, companies, even countries, creating a following, selling an idea — an unknown, a new reality, a better solution or future.

So what?

What’s the value of this discussion? Well, let’s be honest: “entrepreneur” and “leader” are sexier than “business owner” and “manager.” However, organizations need both kinds of roles to succeed.

One of my clients has an incredible vision. She can talk for hours about the concept of her company and what she hopes to bring to the world.

However, she shuts down as soon as someone asks her for something more concrete: her goals, objectives, how she’s going to accomplish her vision. She recognizes that she’s not the right person to structure and manage the operations and has brought in other resources to do so.

To make any business successful, you need to be honest with yourself. You may have started the business, but are you the one who should continue to run it? If you’re happier running it, are you the type to take it through tough times and lead the necessary changes to stay competitive? Or, are you done with what you’ve created, bored and ready to move on to the next project?

Make sure that you are the right person for the role you’ve decided to assign yourself. Forget about your title. What are you good at and what are you great at? What do you enjoy doing? Where do you excel? How do you add value?

All these roles, when done well, are just as glamorous, even if the terms are not. Relish who you are and identify complementary skills in others to make sure a business has all the talent it needs to succeed . . . and stay successful. You don’t need to be excellent at everything.


If All Your Friends Jumped Off A Bridge…

Look how many people “liked” my post!

First we heard, “I need a website.” Then we heard, “I need an e-newsletter.” Then a blog. Then a Twitter account. Then a Facebook fan page. Then Instagram. Now TikTok.

If the only justification is “because everyone else has one” or the slightly deceptive “I just need a presence there” — and you can’t explain why — you’re on the wrong track.

Social media is not strategy.

Tactics are what we hear about today. They’re more exciting and generally sexier than business strategies and objectives. (Stop yawning.) It’s exhilarating to wake up and find that 12,316 people care to read what you have to tweet next, even if 10,012 of them are bots.

But maybe it’s not social media that has captivated your attention. Do you like throwing around names like Slack or Zapier? Do you think the hottest CRM, ERP, automated workflow, or data visualization software will be the perfect strategy to turn your business around? Technology is not a strategy, either.

Social media, technology — they’re simply tools. They are tools to implement tactics to help achieve your business goals and objectives.

So what?

Understanding that tactics can support your strategies and achieve your objectives will help you select the right tactics and execute them effectively.

But before you think about strategy, it’s important to understand an even bigger picture.

The Why: Mission and Vision

Most businesses have a mission and a vision. These are the aspirational ideas of what you 1) want your organization to accomplish/what you are trying to achieve and 2) how you anticipate your business will look at the epitome of achieving your mission.

These elements direct boards, leadership, managers, and teams with:

  • An understanding about why the organization exists.
  • A context for everyone’s work and contributions.
  • What is open to change and what should never change.

In an ideal situation, these foundational pieces of strategy can motivate you and others to get out of bed every day. Think about a research team that was designed with one purpose, “Beat cancer.”

There are many for-profits with missions and visions focused on improving people’s lives, financial liberation, or doing better for its customers. WalMart’s corporate mission is “to save people money so they can live better.”

These elements can and should drive your team’s work.

The What: Strategy

Your strategy is the master plan of how you will achieve your mission. It should address all facets of your business, from your competitive position to operations to customer experience. This should be robust enough to ultimately drive all corporate decisions.

How should you craft your strategy?

  • Michael Porter defines trade-offs — choosing what not to do — as the essence of strategy. Does your strategy set and define limits? For example, do you want to cater to everyone and anyone, or have you defined a target customer profile? Are you trying to enter all markets at once?
  • A distinctive value proposition should set you apart from your competition. Following with the above example: instead of catering to everyone, which customers will you target? What needs of theirs will you address?
  • Next, how will you do that? Have you tailored your activities to support your value proposition? Whether performing activities differently or by performing different activities than others in your field (even if you are targeting the same customers), you gain a competitive advantage.
  • For example, Rent the Runway’s value proposition is to provide a fashion revolution, a “dream closet in the cloud,” basically offering access to an “infinite selection” of designer dresses and accessories. However, to make that happen, the company needs to be the largest, most efficient dry cleaning service in the country. It doesn’t sound as glamorous as the value proposition, but that’s how they make it happen.

All the answers to these questions help define your strategy and create a complex structure in which all the parts fit together seamlessly. And each piece should be able to enhance the value of the others.

With a comprehensive, well-thought-out strategy, anyone in an organization can find guidance for decisions, from entering a new market and launching a new product to making merger and acquisition deals to selecting technology to support operations.

Should I stick to a strategy when everything is changing?

While failed companies are often accused of changing too slowly, it is possible to change too much and in the wrong ways. The old wisdom is that continuity of strategy helps companies to make judicious choices around change.

Strategy should reflect the times and incorporate flexibility and uncertainty. Being nimble, proactive, and at minimum, responsive, will help you stay relevant.

Yet don’t bury your head in the sand. While a clear mission and vision set the foundation, strategy should not necessarily be carved in stone. Strategies may need to change or adapt with growth, constriction, as other players or technologies enter the market, or radical changes like pandemics affect supply chains, consumer behavior, needs, and more. Evolve as appropriate.

Strategic Goals and Objectives

Goals and objectives begin to make missions and strategies more concrete. They can be operationalized, cut across functional areas, and address financial and nonfinancial issues (but don’t always have to do all this).

While the common wisdom for setting goals focuses around BHAGSs (big, hairy, audacious goals) to push you, psychology tells us that if we constantly set goals we don’t meet, we internalize the failure. And that’s not good. We should be selecting goals that stretch us but are achievable.

Objectives drill down further into strategy. They need to be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and incorporate a time dimension. Bottom line: they are precise terms of what needs to be accomplished in order to meet the goals.

Setting goals and objectives bring up important questions. For example, if an objective is to double your client base or land a multimillion-dollar client, the next questions should be: Can the business support that? What happens if you achieve your goals? What happens if you don’t?

When conducting a strategic review, whether you met your goals and objectives or not, it’s important to identify why. Sometimes failing to meet one objective is not a bad thing. Understanding why you did or did not accomplish what you set out to do is important.

But let’s get back to the different elements; your strategy needs an action plan.

The How: Plans, Actions, Tasks, and . . . Tactics

Now that you have set specific objectives, how will you accomplish them? How do you make it all happen? I bet you never thought I’d get back to those tactics I mentioned at the beginning. Here is where they become relevant.

Plans should be developed with details — defining actions, tasks, and tactics. These should also include timelines, milestones, an allocation of resources, and, if needed, “phase gates” to review if a course of action should continue. Lastly, responsibilities should be assigned.

Now, the puzzle pieces come together: these plans and tactics are there to accomplish the objectives and the larger goals.

New tactics and tools — from technology to social media sites — should be seen as additional tools in the toolbox. They should not be ignored but considered like any other. How you choose to execute your strategy should reflect the environment in which you exist and operate.

Sometimes, plans don’t work as expected (another good reason to have milestones and phase gates). At each milestone and phase gate, you (or someone not personally involved in the execution) should review/evaluate:

  • What plans are currently in place, and what actions will accomplish this?
  • Do I need to adjust some of the plans and actions?
  • Do I need to consider the resources that have been allocated?
    • Is the spending too much or too little?
    • Do the people assigned to this work have the skill set necessary to succeed?

If you choose to use a new tactic or tool, consider your organizational capabilities:

  • Do we really understand how to best use this tool and leverage its value?
  • Who in my company will be responsible for its implementation?
  • Do they need training or more information?
  • Does this tactic change/impact anything else?
    • What changes will I need to make when I implement it?
    • What changes should I expect if it’s successful?
    • Will it increase demand more than I can currently handle?
  • How will I evaluate its impact?

Finally, if you decide to outsource the implementation of this tactic, make sure you choose a vendor who wants to understand how this tactic fits with your larger strategy and plans.

So what?

There’s a great Sesame Street skit my daughter likes: Ernie wakes Bert first by playing the trumpet and then by playing the drums. Bert explains to Ernie he needs to “stop and think about what will happen.”

When hearing and learning about shiny new tools and tactics, make sure you, too, “stop and think.”