Celebrating failure

Have you ever been put in charge of a project at work, and at first you might feel confident in smashing it with professional elegance, then the wheels start to wobble? Too many people get involved and try to take over, deadlines are missed and the project turns out not being the best it could have been? You might feel completely responsible for it and can’t help but think your colleagues and manager think less of you. After you think you’ve dropped the ball, you might think you won’t get given another opportunity to lead a project. What to do?

Step one is an important one – nay, the most important step: don’t beat yourself up about it. You must remember that what’s done is done and while time travel is still being figured out the only thing you can do about it is accept and celebrate the failure.

‘Yay! I failed!’

For completeness, I’m going to throw out the cliché ‘the best way to learn is to fail’. By failing, you look back on the situation and determine why it resulted in failure, and thereby learn not to do it that way again.

But to actually celebrate it, you make a big thing out of it in a really productive way, and it will help you deal with failure in the future without beating yourself up so much. You’ll associate failure as a thing to celebrate, an opportunity to learn more about why something didn’t work, and in turn learn what to avoid to make sure next time is more likely to result in success. This isn’t an opportunity to question or doubt your capabilities, or think there’s something wrong with you. This wastes time and doesn’t produce anything other than guilt. Taking the time to look at what happened, and why it happened, in a really constructive and objective way, will help you understand more about doing it right next time as well as understand more about yourself, and how others work.

For example, you could look into the feeling confidence in executing the project. What made you feel confident? Did you have a game plan? Did you feel like your existing skills were up to pulling this off flawlessly? What was it that gave you that can-do attitude at the beginning?

Then what was it that made this go away? What made you question yourself? Was it down to too many people getting involved? Do you think they did this because they felt you were failing and needed to pick you up, or did they just want to take part and inadvertently (or consciously) step on your toes? Whichever the case, they have clearly stepped over a boundary with you that didn’t result in improving the execution of the project. But this boundary was invisible and only in your head. Looking at this alone, you’ll know next time, when you are given the lead of a project you will set boundaries and explain to everyone involved who plays what part. Then should they stick their oar in too much without it adding to the process, you have something to refer to when you talk them back into their role of the project e.g. ‘Bob, my understanding was that you were going to do X. Is there another angle you want to be involved in?’

You could then speak with them why they felt the need to interject, in a constructive way, to let them have their say. It could be they know of a better way of doing things in which case you should decide what action to take. They could also express their concern that they are playing the wrong part in the process, and as the lead of the project, you will have the ability to swap people’s roles to best match their abilities. This will result in happier players, better results, and time spent more effectively.

Regular communication

Communication plays a big part in this, not just at the beginning to establish boundaries and the game plan, but also to get together at agreed times and milestones to discuss progress and what is and isn’t working well. It can be at these points you can then look into the next issue of deadlines being missed. These milestone meetings – even if they were 5 or 10 minutes – ensure that any sign of deadlines being missed can result in either people upping their game, or negotiating a reschedule. These deadlines apply to each milestone, not just the end deadline. Referring to these makes it easier for you when you feel like the bad guy announcing that a milestone hasn’t been hit on time. You will then have between the most recent milestone and the next to pick up the pace. You can then have more confidence that the final deadline will be met without any last minute panic. And if the final deadline is going to be missed, asking for a deadline extension is far, far better than missing it, or meeting it with half-finished results.

Having a meeting after the project has completed also gives everyone a chance to put forward how they thought it went and their views on why deadlines were missed (if they were). Unless you have been told outright it was your fault, each member might feel it was solely their fault too. Discussing it as a single team and also a group of individuals means you can learn from each other’s perception of the execution while also establishing some boundaries for next time you work with any or all of them again.

If you have been told that it was your fault and your fault alone, then still celebrate it by asking for feedback that you can take away, use and work on. It may very well be a capability thing, in which case use this experience to your advantage by using it as leverage into discussions around further training or skill development.

Speaking with your line manager

Once you have conducted an audit of how the project was executed (rather than using the term ‘how it failed’), list these in a series of concise points to discuss with your line manager. Whether they think it was your fault or not, having taken the initiative to find out exactly why things didn’t go to plan to your line manager shows you have held your hands up, you are already aware of how it was executed, and that you’ve actively sought reasons and in turn their solutions so that you can discuss your approach for next time. This could result in further development opportunities, more experience in a particular area, or just understanding what is required next time in clearer detail.

So celebrating this failure as an opportunity to learn more about how you work (how you set boundaries, how you tolerate certain behaviour, how you let people have their say), how your colleagues work (the skills they believe they have to offer, their thoughts on how things should be done) and how projects can be completed with good results and on time (open and regular communication, working with a timeline with set milestones) goes further than just finding out what went wrong and not doing it again.

Working this way means that you will, in time, work towards a no-blame work culture. Try to remind yourself too that being not-so-good now emphasises your improvement when you go to do something better next time.

Next time

Make sure you check out the next article here on The Avid Doer, where I turn the question around and talk about the next, but equally important step: celebrating success.

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