I had a coffee with a friend yesterday that got shafted at work. She had been working on an exciting new agenda for some months, got signoff at every level and was ready to transition into the new leadership role that came with her plan. Unfortunately they (the evil bosses) took her plan, but replaced her in the leadership role with a political appointment that won’t be able to deliver. To add insult to injury, she will be seconded to support the new “leader” in delivering her plan. Unsurprisingly she is a bit miffed (understatement!) and sees herself as having failed.
So we had a chat and I tried to be supportive, outlining my thoughts on success and failure.
Most people are very good at defining success, we teach it at school from the very beginning. There is a right answer pre-defined by the teacher, and if you’re not right, you’re wrong. i.e. failure is simply the state of “not success”. But real life is much more complex, more shades of grey. There are normally a couple of right answers, and many more “almost right” answers that we can work with. But still we we are trained to only define success not failure, and if we don’t achieve it in our careers, we tend to get emotional and flail about as we see ourselves as having failed.
Having worked in innovative and entrepreneurial environments almost my entire career, failure and I are good friends. In fact I now pretty much expect to not succeed in anything until I have had a couple of go’s at it. However I don’t support the Seth Godin concept of that “worthwhile things are hard, and you should keep on whacking away at it until you succeed” I prefer the Scott Kilmartin concept of “The wisdom of years helps you decide when you should quit a project, no matter how personally painful it is”.
All this can seem a bit confusing, but I have a fairly simple approach to most things I get involved with.
This is normally easy (as we spend our lives doing it) and there are plenty of resources to help guide you if you are confused or unsure about your personal goals. Obviously SMART Goals are good (Specific, Measurable Attainable, Realistic, Timely). An example of defining success could be offering a new product to five existing customers and getting 2 sales within a month.
This is a a lot more difficult, but I lean towards parts of the SMART Goals framework (but just the Specific, Measurable, Timely parts) to define this. I also normally define failure after I have defined success as it gives you a nice contrast, but I don’t simply define failure as the opposite of success though. An example of failure could be offering a new product to five existing customers and not getting any appointments to explain the product within a month. Defining failure clearly also offers much better learning opportunities for you when things don’t work out right.
Recognise there is space in between.
You don’t need to define the difference between success and failure, just recognise that a result that falls in that space means you will have to come up with a plan B, and kick it into action. Remember, that this is probably the most likely outcome, so embrace it when it comes.
Defining both success and failure upfront means that you can be a hell of a lot more effective and less emotional when things don’t pan out the way you want. It also means that you stop investing your time in dud ideas quickly, and stick with the ones that might just pan out.
My friend didn’t get to be the recognised leader of the new agenda, however she did get to be the architect of it and the implementer. Turns out she can live with that once she realised she hadn’t failed and they are using her plan, its just that she didn’t comprehensively succeed.