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What to do when you fail September 19, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.

Recently I was in a meeting where I realized one of my projects was failing. It was ugly. It was well exposed to my boss. I came away embarrassed that we were failing. I came away feeling that I had let people down. Now that the anger, embarrassment, and sulking are done, what are the next steps? What do you do when you fail?

Thanks to Kevin Jarrett @http://www.flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/

There are a lot of approaches to how to react to failure. Some people hit it head on. Some people avoid responsibility and redirect blame. For me the right approach is to quickly try to analyze the problem and then take a different direction. I find that failure means one of two things: either there is something for me to learn or I’ve gotten slack.

If there is something I need to learn, the solution is easy. Analyze the process for what failed and correct it. I see this in about 90% of the cases. By gradually improving my personal processes and my department’s processes, I see growing success both in my career and in my company.

In the second case, some kind of corruption has set in.The decay has allowed something we are usually good at to deteriorate. This can occur at either the team or individual level.It is much harder to deal with than the simple learning situations.Still there are a few steps that can help:

1.       Set aside time to specifically deal with the issue

Failures due to process corruption must be fixed quickly. They are like a disease and rapidly spread if not dealt with. You need time to do the remaining steps and without designated time your day will be absorbed by less critical problems. Time needs can vary widely from 10 minutes to 10 hours to 10 days.

2.       Identify why the corruption has occurred

When I talk about process corruption this simply implies that something that used to work no longer does. There are numerous possible issues. Perhaps you or your team has become careless because you are good at this process. Perhaps you have a morale problem. Perhaps external factors are interfering with the normal process flow. External factors can range from personal issues such as a death in the family or depression to 3ed party issues such as interdepartmental strife or uncoordinated changes by other groups.

3.       Correct the core issue

Once it is identified we need to correct the core issue. Personal issues may require counseling or at least a reminder that personal issues cannot impact work performance. External issues may require meetings or realignment of resources. Moral issues may require a look at team dynamics and how to improve.

4.       Correct the resulting failure

The initial failure that let you know there is a problem left a mess that now needs to be cleaned up. Depending on the severity of the failure time frames can vary.

5.       Look for other related failures.

Process corruption is nasty stuff. The root-cause addressed in 2 and 3 above can often impact other projects and processes. Look at what you or your organization does with a high level focus and try to determine if any other processes or projects have been impacted. If they have, correct them.

Here is a case I have dealt with:

I had a meeting which revealed that a project was out of control and the planning was far weaker than I had led myself to believe. Given that I am a strong project planner and analyst and also given that I saw nothing to indicate a lack of knowledge caused this failure, I concluded that I had slacked off and allowed process corruption to sneak into my daily routine.

1.       I immediately scheduled about 2 hours a day for the next week to isolate and solve the problem

2.       I concluded that a slow schedule and relative quietness had lulled me into a more careless management style. I was allowing uncritical and personal items to creep more and more into my daily schedule.

3.       I restructured my schedule and hardened my prioritization process to make sure I was keeping the critical items in perspective. I intentionally allowed my personal schedule to take a hit until I was convinced that my work process was successful again.

4.       I spent a number of hours analyzing and pushing the behind project until it caught up with where it should be.

5.       I looked over my whole schedule. The strengthened prioritization process in 3 above made sure that critical items stayed at the top of the list. I did find a few other items that had also suffered some neglect and moved them up in priority.

What is a situation where you have discovered process corruption in your organization or yourself? What did you do about it?
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