Have you ever noticed how successful businesses tend to have nice biscuits in the kitchen, normally something special, wrapped in chocolate, perhaps with a little dash of marshmallow or jam. Meanwhile businesses on their last legs, normally have a couple of broken Anzacs in the biscuit barrel. Not to say I don’t like Anzac’s, its just that broken ones seem to accompany businesses about to fail.
I’ve talked about the importance of recognising failure before, and I wanted to talk it about again this week as I have visited a firm with some “broken Anzac’s in the kitchen”. Failure has lots of attributes; it can be catastrophic or minor, likely or unlikely, frequent or rare even desirable or undesirable, and of course a whole lot of other things.
But the attribute I want to talk about today is the most insidious attribute of all, its visibility. Sometimes failure is obvious, its a “thanks but no thanks” response to a pitch. Hopefully, you learn, adapt and move on. But sometimes failure isn’t recognised because its simply invisible, meaning you don’t know you have failed and can’t learn, adapt and move on. Call me judgemental if you like, but consider:
- The owner of an IT services partnership I have known for many years. He told me “We are doing really well, because we have managed to cover out costs for the last decade”. The two man firm was really just them being contractors, pretending they were in business and never noticed that their client list hadn’t changed over the last 5 years either. They never considered that with effort they could have more than this, they just felt “no work, no pay” was their lot in life. Their failure was invisible to them.
- The owner of a small marketing firm, who told me “we must be doing everything right, because we are making about $500K profit a year”. He never got invited to pitch to new businesses, was never considered to be a trusted advisor and every day was hard work. In fact his business didn’t grow because he was leaking customers as fast as he could get them on board, and every ex-customer hated his guts.. He saw himself as a “winner” with vast success just around the corner. Because he wouldn’t recognise his failures, he changed his goals so that the $500K profit defined success. He altered his goals to suit the outcomes, so that he never failed and never changed his ways.
- An executive in a large Australian Telecommunications business who was a friend of mine, and had held a series of strategy based roles. He moved through a series of business units that all failed after he left. In each case he felt that the reason for failure was poor execution, and it was never his strategy, despite the fact he was the common denominator. He refused to recognise that he contributed to the failure, so never learnt from it and was eventually squeezed out as he couldn’t impact profitability.
So failure can be invisible because it wasn’t in your aspirations, or you just won’t recognise it, or you trick yourself into thinking you are always a winner. But if you wanted to recognise this invisible failure and wanted to do something about it, there is a couple of things I think you can do.
1. Define success and define failure
You may be pitching a new product to 6 customers – getting two sales is outright success, getting no interest is failure. A result somewhere in between means you need to tweak your product, and failure means you should drop the product. Defining success is generally easy but rarely done, especially when its qualitative. Defining failure – or when you give up and try another tack is generally much, much harder to do. Not because its technically difficult, but because it makes people uncomfortable. However doing both gives you much more clarity on approaching any task.
2. Ask yourself what would getting lucky look like?
Some people just get lucky, they happen to sit next to famous people or potential customers on a plane and get on like a house on fire. People who never fly, normally complain about this phenomena. Exploring the question “What would getting lucky look like” helps you visualise outcomes that you may not be targeting, but capable of achieving. Therefore you can act, fail, learn and then alter your behaviour to achieve heights you never considered before.
3. Enjoy your competitors product
Have a good look at what competitors are doing and focus on what you like and their success. All too often we tend to feverishly focus on our own stuff the only comments we make about competitors is criticism. By looking at what competitors do well, you can see what your potential customers see and it open up new ideas of what your success could look like.
4. Notice the little signals
Sometimes success isn’t black and white, especially if its qualitative like being “valued”. And qualitative successes tend to have lots of little indicators along the way, such as; a client that wants to catch up for lunch, being asked to sit on a discussion panel, being cc’d on communications that don’t directly affect you. If you understand what the signals of success are, and they are missing, then you are seeing signals of invisible failure.
So why does all this have mind share with me at the moment? I got offered some broken Anzac biscuits last week by a company I was pitching to, and on leaving the premises I asked myself “Why would actually want to win their business? – It will be less lucrative, and they are sure to argue over every point in my invoices plus pay late”. By recognising the situation as a failure, I can create time on my schedule for much better opportunities. Perhaps with Tim Tams rather than Anzacs.