Success is All about Managing Failure
It was tough making this year’s annual company picnics – back-to-back meetings, a redeye back to make one picnic and an early morning flight to make our next location’s picnic. Attending our company picnics has always been important to me because it gives me a chance to both recognize and encourage teamwork. Perhaps most important, it gives me an opportunity to meet some of our newest, brightest team members and get a sense as to where our most valuable asset is going to take us tomorrow. During a break in playing horseshoes, I spoke with one of the newest members of our team and she commented that it probably would have been easier to grow the company if we had gotten venture capital (VC) funding. I thought about the conversation on the flight home to Austin that evening. There were certainly times in our growth that VC money would have made things easier. But it probably would have also made things tougher. I’ve seen too many start-ups get a huge cache of money from VCs, lease great offices, hire a bunch of brilliant/expensive MBAs and deliver a spectacular failure.
You don’t just get an idea and receive a bunch of money that suddenly makes you endowed with the brilliance and spirit to manage, inspire people. Sometimes the luxury of a financial cushion can be a negative because starting and growing a company is a personal learning adventure. If you look back at all of the real innovations in history, and especially in technology, none of the solutions were first-attempt successes. Like the game of horseshoes, you’re aiming for the ringer — they aren’t all ringers, but you’re moving toward improving your score because “close” counts in horseshoes. Some tosses may be outright misses, but as long as we understand the goals and the targets, we’re improving along the way and lining up those ringers to follow. It just doesn’t happen. You have a goal and make adjustments as you move forward. The same is true in managing people.
Manage by Influence
To succeed, you learn to manage by influence because you come to realize no one really works for you. Whether you’re CEO, president, VP of something or program manager, you need to understand the fact that you work for them. The most important job you have is to help staff members, partners and customers succeed. That means you have a contract with them and they with you. If it’s a team member or business partner, they have agreed to do something by a particular time. You have agreed to give them the support and freedom to deliver on that commitment. As rapidly as business moves today, team members need to be encouraged to take risks and know they have the support of management and the rest of the organization. With VC funding, you’re not only working for team members, you’re also working for the investors. That means you often focus on safe decisions and marginalize the importance of the team that does the real work.
Empower, Stand Back
I’ve learned over the years that the fundamental principle of leadership is to empower your team then … get out of their way. Team members at every level have to understand your company wants to deliver disruptive innovations that benefit the customer. It’s important to grow the best team possible-not by hiring A-Team prima donnas but people who understand how to come together as a team- and grow it slowly so everyone has a chance to get up to speed with all the guidance and assistance possible. Push responsibility, accountability down the organization and trust their decision-making. That helps your team members reach all of their potential and develop into effective leaders. The team has to feel that they are free and enabled to excel in their work, often even beyond their own expectations/goals; and that they can see and celebrate the results of their efforts. That also means that at times they are going to have to take risks; and if those risks lead to failures, they have to know management is there to support and assist them.
In our innovation-driven industry, ideas/projects will occasionally fail; but failure shouldn’t be viewed as a character flaw or defeat as long as the individual recognizes it as quickly as a problem and comes up with alternatives that could snatch success from the hands of defeat. I’ve had my personal share of great projects that have failed and I don’t care what anyone says, no failure is enjoyable; but you can’t let it define you. We’ve all met people who have a great idea but are paralyzed to inaction by the very thought of failure. It’s better to foster an environment that encourages people to recognize their fear, fight it off and understand that they may have to change course several times to achieve success.
Business isn’t a straight line between concept and customer. That’s often why rather than hire people for a specific job, it’s better to hire people who understand why we’re in business … to enable people to extend the use life of their computers and do more with them. In addition to hiring people who understand why their company is in business, they also have to have the freedom to deliver on that commitment … even if they happen to make mistakes along the way–as long as it was done for the right reasons.
One of the biggest problems is when people say they’re going to do something and then don’t do it. We’ve all met people who have said yes they’re willing to take a risk to complete a project or job. Then, when you’re jointly analyzing what went wrong, you discover they didn’t think you were serious. Management’s job is to create an environment that encourages them to recognize the mistake quickly and correct it quickly/cost-effectively while learning from the mistake. Having a project fail isn’t the worst thing that can happen, not to have tried is the true failure. As the most admired firms in the industry have shown, growth and innovation come from daring ideas and calculated gambles. That’s difficult when employees receive conflicting messages … be creative/innovative and be cautious/preserve profits.
In a market that changes daily, there is always too much to do and too many opportunities. You can’t just avoid all risk, because that only leads to stagnation. It’s impossible to try something new and have 100 percent assurance it won’t fail. If the project succeeds, analyze what was done to make it succeed. If it fails, be objective in analyzing what went wrong and what went right so team members can avoid the wrong and capitalize on the rights for the next project.
Fail Fast, Fail Forward
It’s best to encourage team members to take the initiative; and if the project fails, ensure it fails fast, fails forward. That doesn’t happen just by giving lip service to teamwork, empowerment. It has to be reinforced constantly and even then … it can fail. None of this is easy; but we all learn by doing, and the right failures breed great successes–including those we have to accept when someone else has made them.