Unless we try, we do not learn. But if we try, we will fail from time to time. I tried a few things in my business life which did not work out. Things that are never mentioned in any official setting. Here are what I consider to be my biggest blunders.
My CV of failures
- 2000/2001 Not sustaining the Startup I co-founded for longer than a year
We wanted to build a cloud solution for managing B2B contracts (Links2U.com) on marketplaces. Then the 2001 dot.com bubble burst. We were forced to earn money doing services and not building the product. But I guess the dot.com bubble is not really to blame: Our business idea was a bit too early & a bit too academic
- 2008/2009 Not being promoted to Vice President at Capgemini: Despite all my success in managing projects – my skill and interest in sales have been found wanting. I guess these observations are still correct.
- 2011 Not getting a Culture of Experimentation going: Who is to blame for today’s sales? Always the weather! I wanted to move beyond that and use experimentation and statistics to help to guide our efforts to run our European Store network. But the methods I used didn’t stick across the organizational silos – all reverted more or less back to the status quo ante after a year. There were always other things to take care of.
- 2014 Costly negotiation with Microsoft: In negotiating an important group-wide contract on Office365 I failed to invest enough time in building my next best alternative. The skillful negotiators on the other side saw through the veils I employed to obscure that fact. We overpaid.
Failures are embarrassing…
We all have been groomed for faultless performance. That is what schools, universities, and businesses aim for. We have, consciously or not, transferred the basic performance ethics of the machine to the human social sphere: If only everyone would do the assigned job without any fault, the organization would enjoy success. Cogs in a machine doing their jobs.
Therefore we hide failures instead of learning from them. We might reflect on failure silently but rarely choose to talk about them with other people in the organization. For the sake of keeping our outward appearance shiny and clean, we miss out on a great learning opportunity.
..but vulnerability is a must in high-performance organizations
We fear to be vulnerable. But Vulnerability is one of the core features of truly agile, innovative, liberated organizations. One can only truly engage with others, if it is safe to speak up and if ego is not in the way of a better solution.
Looking back, one can argue that I did not fail enough: I should have tried more often and aimed higher. I could respond to that: I did try often and aimed high, but I just had success more often than I failed. Alas, that would be a lie. Careers in traditional businesses are made more by avoiding failure than by seeking success:
A failure makes a powerful narrative that may destroy careers. A success is often not more than a statistic.
So the better, time-tested career tactic is to not try too much.
Battles not picked
A second, lesser class of failure could be those times where I might have picked a battle but did not. These are more numerous.
- Not pushing the envelope in a major global implementation. Instead, I choose to support it but husbanded my energy.
- Not facing up to a company crisis and help to turn around the company at all costs. Instead, I choose to cut losses and leave.
- Not transforming a company into a fast, real-time driven business with a masterful supply chain. I weighed benefits, costs, and risks and walked away from this vision. I still deem it feasible, but not in every circumstance.
- Not driving google cloud adoption all over the company. Instead, I choose to focus on customer demands, which might have been short-sighted.
Success lies in the skill of knowing which battle to fight, and which to avoid. I might have been clever to avoid those battles. Or not. One will never know until one tries.
Failures are Silent Evidence
I think that people should not only be described by the things they have done and succeeded. Failure is an integral part of what a person is. Failures are silent evidence. Being open about it, without “humblebragging”, might be beneficial for everyone around.
Are you willing to be vulnerable?
This blog is about finding better ways to manage organizations in this more and more digital age.
- A Princeton Professors CV of failures
- A Venture Capitalist’s list of failures
- More on vulnerability: Brene Brown “Daring Greatly“
- More on vulnerability in a team setting: Edmondson, Amy “Teaming“
- More on vulnerability in an organizational setting: Robert Kegan et al, “An Everyone Culture“
- More on how to be a rebel in business: Francesca Gino “Rebel Talent“
- More on the blindsides of management