25 Ways To Fail and Come Out on Top


Have you encountered situations where you failed in your career? What have you learned?

I'm sure many of you have had multiple opportunities to learn from failing. It may be splitting words, but to me failing as a verb is much more solid than failure as a noun. It implies something active. It reminds me of valor, or daring to do something in the first place.

Without failing, I would not know many of the limits I was able to break through. As well, without failing fast, I would not have grown as much as I have — personally and professionally. The application of social technologies to business is so new that failing to test and try things will not lead to growth.

The most appreciated mentors, teachers, and the best among managers know that sometimes the best way is to let your people fail their way to greatness. That is extremely hard to do, yet necessary in an age of constant flux.

There are no sure ways to fail. However, you may fail to dare without embracing at least some of the ideas you have. "What if" is not a pleasant conversation to have with yourself if it's looking at what you have failed to do instead of the possibility of what you are doing.

Updating some thoughts from a post I wrote almost four years ago:


1. Lean into the Project — being a team player is great, but sometimes all the meeting and planning slow you and your team down. By the time you are called to implement, there is no juice left in you or your team.

Planning is important, even if it means just slowing down long enough to see the big picture. But way too often planning and meeting replace action and then you have no runway to execute. The best way to execute flawlessly is to have enough execution under your belt.

Some of the planning and process mania is a placebo for managing risk. The other placebo effect is trying to get everyone on the same page. How about working it, leveraging people's skills, and pushing through the dip?

Lack of speed is also a symptom of a culture that delays and reacts a lot.


2. Decide now, Adjust as you Go — it's much easier to make course corrections once you are on a course to begin with. Ask yourself, what more am I going to learn by waiting? Probably not much. Who benefits from lack of action? Maybe the competition.

There is also something to be said for listening to your gut. Do you do that? Your gut is the instinctual part developed through experience.

When you remain flexible through the execution phase you can also incorporate a lot of ideas and feedback from your team and customers. You won't have any of that to work with unless you decide to do in the first place.


3. Do as you know how to best, not as you're told — before everyone gets up in arms about this one, I'm talking about creating something instead of copying what has worked before – "this is the way we do things" does not work forever.

This is especially valid when you are copying what your competitors are doing.

You do not see what's behind their tactics. One of my favorite phrases in favor of not benchmarking too much is that just because everyone else is doing something, it does not mean it's the right thing to do for you.


4. Pick the hill on which to die — be very selective on how you spend your political capital and that of your team. Especially when you're new – in the job and on a project. If you stick around long enough you learn what will make the day and what will not matter tomorrow.

This is especially important if you are in a service organization. By service I mean your department is not viewed as revenue-generating directly like sales and operations, but more as a cost center like finance, HR, marketing, and corporate communications. 

When you pick the right battle, you help the organization manage risk meanigfully and do change effectively.


5. Solve the right problems — that means solving their problems, those of your customers, your team, your partner, instead solving just your own.

Over and over I have seen that those who get promoted, those who are chosen to lead, those who get the contract, are one and the same with those who solve problems.

With greater risk come greater rewards. This does not mean that you create the problem so you can go ahead and solve it. Leave those photo opportunities to others. People see through that fast.


6. Focus your efforts on creating options that work –– make many small decisions that will keep the project moving forward instead of waiting to start. Planning for the long term is important. However, the market is changing at high speed and there is advantage in gaining momentum.

Can you predict where things will stand in six months, two years? Probably not. You can invest more effort into creating the conditions to succeed at multiple levels then by acting right now.


7. Plan to launch instead of planning to plan — the best Web sites I've written and created were the ones that had a rapid launch with iterative improvement process built in. The concept of always in beta is becoming accepted practice.

The comment about the value of planning is still valid. However, you are thinking differently if your plan is to launch in the first place. Your speed, your resolve, your attitude are different when you work that way.


8. Take research with a grain of salt – common practice would have you pay a lot of attention to research and data. Especially in new fields, or new applications, people do not know what they don't know — including customers.

Have you asked the right questions? Which questions are the right ones?

Useful white papers and benchmarks are often the result of most practice: deciding to think and implement in a certain way and documenting those results. 


9. Try new things — unless you move away from your comfort zone, you will not find new shores, as the saying goes. There are ways to fail gracefully and without too much fanfare, if that helps. We're also our own harshest critics, internalizing the difference between our vision and reality.

Trying new things will help you learn to make business deals while change is happening.


10. Test like crazy — execute, execute, execute. Unless you do something, you will not learn what works and what doesn't. The alternative of course is to wait until you have a perfectly irrelevant product.

The critical part is to deliver on your promises and keep an eye on closing that gap.


11. Give customers what they need — sometimes it's not what they think they need or not the same as what they want now. Our cognitive abilities are attuned to what we're used to, which may not be the best thing for us.

The way to innovate is also to solve a problem we did not know we had, or we did not think could be solved.


12. Do different — this is another point for innovating. What solves a problem better?

Instead of doing a brochure like your competitor, what could you be doing? Is your business complex? How about taking a stab at simplifying it? Think construction book, dimensional conversation, games to learn, etc.

This may be uncomfortable, or you may be under pressure to deliver and forced to choose among familiar options. Think about what you may be leaving on the table if you do not try to do at least one thing differently.


13. Quit early, if necessary –– if something is not working out, don't do more of it, do something else. This was golden advice I got many years ago and it has served me well since.

Don't send out more proposals if nobody is calling you –rethink your approach. Better yet, don't send out any proposals, ask more questions and listen instead. Build something that speaks to your skill and point people in your network to it.


14. Over-deliver — forget expectations, this is not about delighting. It's about surprising, innovating, creating something so unique that it earns fans, builds credibility, etc. It's also about giving a lot before asking for anything.

This is a personal mantra. So I would like to caution you on not overdoing the just giving and never asking part, lest it becomes an unbalanced situations for all parties.


15. Embrace resistance — when everyone in agrees and nobody pushes back it's probably too safe (and common) a solution. I've also come to believe that opposition is often an indication that you're onto something interesting. Have you found that to be true?

This is also valid for listening to those who disagree with you. They are going to teach you something you did not know before.


16. Hire people, not keywords — this is starting to matter more with the integration of social technologies in business. Look for passion, love of the work, curiosity, desire to learn, and teach.

Take a hard look at your automated hiring system, and at your recruiters. Are you able to read between the lines? Because that is where all of the interesting stuff is.

It's happened a couple of times in my career that a decision to interview and hire a candidate despite the keywords resulted in outstanding candidates and valuable colleagues. 


17. Tell people what their goals are and get out of the way — as a manager, I see myself more like a coach and facilitator, someone who on occasion can inspire (people who work with me will need to confirm this one).

This is the part where sometimes you need to let your people fail by not telling them "how to" do something.

Interestingly, one of the most disliked characteristics in a manager is their inability to let go of the how to part. They micromanage. It's challenging to go from individual contributor to manager, especially in today's organizations where you're asked to do both. It pays off big dividends when you can straddle that line.


18. Meet to decide — when your goal is that of making a decision, the meeting has a completely different dynamic than when it is about meeting to discuss.

A decision is better than no decision in most instances and it allows you to improve and adjust instead of burning cycles – that is money you can ill afford.


19. Reward achievement, success as well as failure — don't fail to notice either one of them. You learn from the latter, you recognize the former. The only way to create something different is to try something new and take a risk.

When you fail to recognize any kind of achievement, you send the message that it does not matter. And it does in spades. This means you also take time to celebrate when you fail. Today's failure in "x' can be tomorrow's outstanding success in "y".


20. Unlearn what you know — the degree of difficulty in this one is great. The more you know, the less likely you are able to let go of what you know, because you take it for granted. Knowledge makes a great servant and a terrible master. 

Start by asking a different question, looking at things from a different point of view, taking nothing for granted.


21. Share what you know with others — let them build on it, improve it, amend, give you feedback. This is not only valid for social media. It works in many areas of work and life. Success is becoming more and more about social capital and trust, and not about keeping the cards close to the vest.

Note to managers: this is not about expecting people to do exactly as you would.


22. Take on only so many projects — yes, this will probably be a problem in organizations where people are expected to be "jack of all trades". But you know what they say to complete that sentence you are "master of none". 

When you don't leverage your strengths or those of your team(s), you find yourself off balance and ineffective.


23. Take any win — don't wait for the big one. Take them all, take them early. Do more of those. Success has a way of building confidence in yourself and your team. Repeat.


24. Get something done today — it may not be the right thing, but it will lead you to the next best thing and to the one following that one, which may well be the best thing you've ever come up with. We all suffer from blank paper/screen- syndrome.

Start typing, start working it and let it lead you to opportunities — one potential failure at a time.


25. Stop trying to be perfect — this was the underlying message of The Big Moo and it is our grand finale. When you work hard at being perfect you miss all of the great ways to fail your way to success.

Did you know that the notion of risk is independent from the notion of value? Risk can be beneficial as well.


What are the great strides you made in your career, business, and life because you dared to fail?



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