To Succeed, Plan to Fail

I’m getting tired of hearing people say, “Oh I get it. We didn’t plan to fail, we failed to plan.”

When I’m working with a business to help them understand why their process is failing or their projects are off course, sooner or later someone comes out with this little gem. At that point, everyone nods sagely as though they’ve actually solved something. They are missing the point. If that was all that was wrong, they wouldn’t need help.

Sure, it’s certainly true that if you fail to plan, you’re far more likely to fail, but knowing that doesn’t actually address the real problem: they are taking the “failure is not an option” mindset. This is a fantastic line in a movie, but has some problems in reality.

When we take the mindset that failure is something that cannot be accepted, we are implicitly stating that failure is a terrible thing, something so terrible that we cannot even consider it. It’s an attitude similar to that taken by many martial artists, who teach their students that they must never allow themselves to be taken off balance. All their training is then based on the idea of never being off balance. As a result, when they are off balance, they freeze.

A youthful student once watched Morehei Uyeshiba, the founder of Aikido, sparring with a much younger, stronger opponent. After Uyeshiba defeated the guy, the young student said to him, “Master, that was amazing. You never lose your balance!”

Uyeshiba’s reply: “You are mistaken. I frequently lose my balance. My secret is that I know how to regain it quickly.”

Uyeshiba recognized that loss of balance is a normal part of any fight. By training to rapidly regain his balance, he stripped the experience of its emotional content. It was merely something that happened, and something which he well knew how to recover from. As a result, not only were his opponents unable to capitalize on taking him off balance, when he took their balance, they didn’t know what to do.

Failure is the same. When failure becomes something we fear, it can cause us to freeze. At one company, the first hiccup in a string of successes led to panic by the CEO. He wasn’t used to failing, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

The problem is that fear of failure causes us to avoid risk and not experiment with new ideas. When something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, we figuratively lose our balance and become momentarily stuck. If we think that failure means something terrible will happen, we opt for the safe course. Unfortunately, the safe course is often not the best course or the wisest course. It’s merely the one that minimizes the short-term risk to us, potentially at the cost of long-term risk to the team. That, of course, is just fine: if the entire team fails, no one is to blame.

Conversely, when we accept that along the route to success there will be many failures along the way, and when we practice viewing failures as a form of feedback, the negative emotional component of failure is eliminated. Instead, we simply have information: something we attempted did not work the way we expected. What does that mean? What is that telling us about our plan? About our process? About the competitive landscape?

Failure is a way of calibrating our efforts and focusing our energy. Particularly early in a project, small failures are, or should be, common. The less defined the project, the more exploration needs to occur in order to adequately and accurately define the milestones. Indeed, early milestones are best thought of as little more than wishful thinking: opportunities to put stakes in the ground and see what happens when we get there. It’s the chance to see how well the team members are working together, how effective the leader is being, how effectively the team can make decisions and implement a course of action.

When we fear failure, the fear itself is often more damaging than the failure! The key to succeeding at large, important projects is to recognize that failures will happen along the way. By accepting the information that failure gives us and cultivating the mindset that failures are recoverable and useful, failure truly does make us more, not less, likely to succeed.

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