Seth Godin and Failing Better

Last week, I found a blog post by Seth Godin.  He talks about failing in order to be successful.

All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.

The first thing that I thought about is how the lean philosophy talks about rapid experimentation using the PDCA cyle.  If we are experimenting then by definition we will fail.  It is what we learn from these failures that can help us improve and take us to new heights.

Seth mentions two habits that don’t help:

  • Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
  • Not signing up for visible and important projects

Avoid blaming others is one that we talk about quite frequently with the respect for people pillar of lean.

I really took note of the “not signing up for visible and important projects” habit.  I never thought of this as a way to avoid failure, but I can see that it is.  We avoid it so we don’t fail in front of important people and hurt our careers, potentially.  I know I have done that in the past or even made comments like, “Boy that sucks to be on that project.”

I think the underlying point to this is the culture that exists in the organization.  If the culture is to look down upon failures as a very negative thing and to ridicule someone for failing then I can see why people avoid the highly visible and important projects if there is a hint of failure possible.  If the culture is such, should this be a place we want to work?  Should we take the project and if failure occurs show how that can be spun into a positive?  These are not easy questions to ask ourselves and can take a lot of courage to do.

Seth gives a few tips on how to fail better:

  1. Whenever possible, take on specific projects.
  2. Make detailed promises about what success looks like and when it will occur.
  3. Engage others in your projects. If you fail, they should be involved and know that they will fail with you.
  4. Be really clear about what the true risks are. Ignore the vivid, unlikely and ultimately non-fatal risks that take so much of our focus away.
  5. Concentrate your energy and will on the elements of the project that you have influence on, ignore external events that you can’t avoid or change.
  6. When you fail (and you will) be clear about it, call it by name and outline specifically what you learned so you won’t make the same mistake twice. People who blame others for failure will never be good at failing, because they’ve never done it.

I really like #6.  If we stand-up and admit when we fail, don’t blame others, and call out what we learned we can start to change the culture of the organization that failure is a bad thing.  Not to mention admitting we failed, instead of blaming others, is a leadership trait that usually sticks with people.

Lets take the fear out of failing and as Seth puts it “fail better.”

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Posted on April 20, 2011, in Development, Leadership, Learning, Respect for People and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I like these points, I only take issue with the negative connotation of the word ‘fail’. Sure you call a failure a failure, however from my experience, many cultures don’t like to call it failure. It’s scary and doesn’t help people feel safe as ‘failure’ means ‘oh shit, I’m fired…’

    Maybe I’m just too sensitive, I prefer ‘learn by experience’

  2. “Fail better.” I love it!

    I have the hardest time with #4: “Be really clear about what the true risks are. Ignore the vivid, unlikely and ultimately non-fatal risks that take so much of our focus away.”

    I think I spend an inordinate amount of time fearing giant, highly unlikely risks and trying to account for them. Perhaps with Seth’s advice, I can now recognize that and move on…

    Great post!

  3. I really appreciate this a lot. I think my favorite point was that we need to stop avoiding blame. It happens at every office!! I think it fits in with tip #6- if you are in an office where everyone is willing to be very open when they fail, you will be in an office where nobody is pointing fingers in order to escape blame. It creates a great cycle that results in an atmosphere where co-workers trust each other and are willing to put their all into every project without fear of failure.

    • Calling out when we fail is a hard thing to do, especially if the office environment isn’t one that fosters learning. It comes down to how we want to be seen. As Grumpa Joe said, “I’d rather be criticized for doing something, and failing at it than for doing nothing.” Any change starts with us. Any time we can take responsibility and show that we won’t blame others it can set an example for others. Sometimes people don’t want to be the first person to take that step but will quickly follow if someone else takes the first step.

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with being an optimist either, as Becky mentions. The key is to know there will be times where things don’t go well and to be able to call them out and learn from them. I am always optimistic about trying new things, but I know to be prepared because it doesn’t always go well.

  4. Great post. Faliure will happen, and when it does, it’s best to admit it and learn from it.

  5. The adage I used during my career was, I’d rather be criticized for doing something, and failing at it than for doing nothing. Failure is definitely a learning tool. Great inventors fail often. Thomas Edison failed to find a successful filament over five thousand times, eventually, he found the thing that worked. Many millionaires go bankrupt three times before they become millionaires. Failure is a necessity to success.
    Not blaming others is another way of saying you are taking responsibility. That is good, because you will try harder to succeed.
    Great post.

  6. Nice post! My problem is being too much of an optimist. I usually ignore the fact that I could fail, but then when I do – I take it pretty hard.
    Thanks for the tips, I supposed I could learn the most from tip #6!

  7. Failure and fear go hand in hand. Without fear would there be failure? Probably yes, but it will get you a step closer to reaching your dream.

  8. What I take away from this is, you should actually be PREPARED to fail…. and I think that’s where most people go “wrong”… ignoring the possibility instead of making plans for when it happens…

  9. I don’t think it’s about preparing to fail or setting yourself up for failure, but rather embracing it after the fact. It’s bound to happen from time to time, and you likely won’t be able to predict it. When it does happen, just learn and grow. And the bigger lesson is that you shouldn’t avoid things because you’re afraid…give it your all and in the end, if the result is not what you’d like, try again.

  10. “Lean”, a re-naming of Six Sigma, punishes failure, which is probably one of the many reasons failures are covered over in corporate culture. When 10% of the workforce MUST be let go each review period (according to the holy tenets of GE and Six Sigma), you can expect to see a lot of people shifting blame and throwing each other the bus.
    These methodologies sound all touchy-feely but are nothing more than ways to cut, cut and cut.

    • Harry –

      I’m sorry to hear that you have had a bad experience with Six Sigma and or GE. First lean and Six Sigma are two different things. In lean one of the pillars is the respect for people. Respect for people does not mean rank people and then get rid of the bottom performers. In fact one of the first things we educate people on is that we will NEVER lay people off because of improvements made to the process. In fact great lean companies (Toyota, Danaher, FastCap, etc…) didn’t even layoff full time employees during the hard economic times. They took the time to train and improve more to be ready when the economy and sales did turn.

      Six Sigma doesn’t rank people either. That was a Jack Welch philosophy based on his ignorance about respecting people. Respect doesn’t mean nice, it means being honest and talking to poor performers before and helping them. IF they can’t be helped then they may have to be let go. But not the way GE has done it.

      Instances like GE, GM, and many others give both lean and Six Sigma a bad name. That is the reason the lean community has to work so hard to change the perception. I would encourage you or anybody else to find a company that truly understands lean and visit or talk with them. You will definitely see a major difference in not punishing failure and showing respect to people.

  11. When most people fail they simply focus on the fact that they failed. They beat themselves up, lower confidence and discourage their attitudes. Once we fail, it’s just that, we failed. Now what? We press forward. We say what did I do wrong here? How can I do it right the next time? Hey maybe your overall performance will be even better than before because you actually learned something. Being human is being imperfect and that’s perfectly okay.

  12. Yes I agree with some of the posts above me – to truly succeed you must totally pivot the way you think about failure itself or else you will be doomed to revert to old mindsets.

  13. Great post and congrats on being FP’d. I started a print mag in 2007 and lost it, along with my home, in the recession. So it did me some good to see “failure” put in a different light. Congrats again…and I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

  14. I wish failure and fear did not go hand in hand.

    • They don’t have to go hand and hand. Try this thinking instead:

      1) Try learning something new…just for the sake of discovering or learning something new.
      2) When facing a large daunting problem or issue – ACCEPT the fact that you are probably going to fail at solutions ahead of time. DECIDE ahead of time, when pursuing potential answers, that instead of fearing not finding a proper solution you will use what was learned (good and/or bad) to move you toward more possible solutions.
      3) Encourage others you see fail when they are pursuing answers to keep on looking for solutions. Ask if you can help in the effort.

  15. Failure teaches you what you did “wrong”…which merely means you didn’t reach that particular goal. On your own (I’m a writer and author), that affects your income and your ego. In a team or corporate environment, people can blame one another, but the more useful exercise is determining, forensically, which decisions or thinking contributed to the failure.

    I’ve written more than four full book proposals that never sold. Ouch! But my new book is selling well. I surely learned from all these “failures.” Had I sat in the corner and sulked, or given up, my new book wouldn’t — as it will be soon — be in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and People.

    http://malledthebook.com/

    Listening to the radio as I write this, the announcer says that Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 was written to win him a specific job…and failed. It remains an astonishingly lovely piece.

    The most useful aspect of failure is picking through the pieces to find what’s valuable within it. Much is.

  16. I like the name. “Fail Better.” But knowing that you have to put yourself out there and pick yourself up when you f up. That is just life.
    Check out my site: SellEarth.com

  17. Accepting responsibility? You bet. Sadly in corporate culture this seems such a rare event. I’ve even had people try and “ignore” or cover for me when I have admitted that things didn’t go as they should have done.

    It is so important to know you can trust those around you not to try and shift blame if something goes wrong. It is a sad fact that society seems to be creating a “blame” culture which can only increase the perceived risks of failing.

    Today’s challenge: choose one thing you are afraid to do (that is legal!) and have not done because you are worried about failing – and get out there and do it! You will always having the satisfaction of knowing your fears did not hold you back.

  18. For me, every experience good or bad, success or failure, is an opportunity for me to grow and evolve. I strive, regardless of how difficult it might be to make an upward adjustment with every situation.

    http://www.bethesdaholiness.com

  19. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing!

  20. Thanks for your response, Matt. You DO have an uphill battle to change the perception of your methods, whatever the terminology. My experience was not with GE, but with another company filled by their Six Sigma “black belts”. And I learned why they use karate terminology for their qualifications – they beat an organization up, leave it bloodied and demoralized, and then move on.
    If you want to build the Sistine Chapel, you can’t just dumb down processes so you can do it with anyone off the street. You’ve got to hire Michelangelo.
    I know Toyota is held up as the shining example of lean methodology, but I think we got a peek behind the curtain during their accelerator recall problems.
    You seem sincere in your quest to spread this program, so I wish you the best. I hope you’ll abide by the Hippocratic Oath and “first do no harm” to the companies you consult for. Real lives get impacted by these managerial religions.

  21. I don’t think it’s about preparing to fail or setting yourself up for failure, but rather embracing it after the fact. It’s bound to happen from time to time, and you likely won’t be able to predict it. When it does happen, just learn and grow. And the bigger lesson is that you shouldn’t avoid things because you’re afraid…give it your all and in the end, if the result is not what you’d like, try again.

  22. I don’t think it’s about preparing to fail or setting yourself up for failure, but rather embracing it after the fact. It’s bound to happen from time to time, and you likely won’t be able to predict it. When it does happen, just learn and grow. And the bigger lesson is that you shouldn’t avoid things because you’re afraid…give it your all and in the end, if the result is not what you’d like, try again.

  1. Pingback: Failing Better « Mental Minutes

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