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We Learn More From Our Failures

Do you celebrate your successes? (Or are you too busy?)

Celebrating success – and doing simple things such as saying “thank you” to the team – is one of the best ways to strengthen teamwork, and to build your reputation as someone good to work with.

Okay. What about failures? Do you celebrate them as well?

You should – albeit not in quite the same way.

The thank-you/end-of-project party remains worthwhile, maybe even more important than after a successful project. The people on a project with a less-than-desirable outcome – e.g., a lost case, or a judgment against your client – worked just as hard… and now they’re disheartened rather than energized. “Thank you” goes even further than it would on a successful outcome, means more, binds the team to you as someone worth working with.

Just as importantly, you can learn more from your failures than from your successes. Much more.

Consider: On a successful project, what one or two things contributed most to the success? Do you know? Are you sure? Do you know how to repeat them? For example, if you won because your team uncovered a hot document, a “smoking gun,” what’s the repeatable lesson? Even more money spent on e-discovery? How much of what you did was the right amount? What was more than enough? Was there friction with the client now forgotten in the thrill of victory? Your bad communication didn’t scuttle the project… but do you understand how it might have, or doesn’t it matter because you won?

Successes often are built on a hundred things going not-wrong. It’s hard to learn useful lessons, because twenty of those hundred probably had no bearing on the outcome… and you rarely know which twenty.

However, failures often arise from one or two things going significantly not-right.

Some stand out. They walk up and hit you upside the head, wearing a what-were-you-thinking smirk.

Others hide, wallflowers at the pity party.

It’s up to you to embrace rather than ignore the obvious ones – and to seek out the hidden factors.

If you don’t, they’ll recur. Ignore-them-and-they’ll-go-away works no better than it does with a toothache.

Rather, treat the causes of failure with respect, as opportunities. “Here’s what we did wrong. How can we avoid this issue next time, or at least encounter less of it? What should we be doing instead?”

Errors are much easier to spot than the crucial turning points on which success hinges. And you’ll spot them more often in retrospect than as they happen, at least the first time you bump into them. So treat failures – or less-than-runaway-successes – as the terrific opportunities they are: chances to learn more, to get better, and to share honestly with the team.

It’s hard work, and not always pleasant. We’d all rather look for the next opportunity than glance in the rear-view mirror. But it’s how we get smarter and better, faster.

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This article is modified from Steven B. Levy’s upcoming book, Legal Project Management Cookbook: How Smart Project Managers Get It Wrong, and How You Can Make It Right! 

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