In information technology, we struggle hard not to fail. That doesn't mean that we plan to succeed; rather, we plan and plot to make it so that everyone has a chance to "win." The distinction became startlingly clear to me one day while working on a disaster recovery project for a client. The ramifications took longer to sink in.
I was working as a project manager and architectural advisor for a company that had around 1,500 nodes. One day, they decided to test their off-site recovery methods. They asked the project team for assistance, which we provided when we had free moments. After a month of preparation, the team shut down the servers, went through our procedures, and then ran the business "normally" for several days before switching back to the production mode.
The switch off to the back-up systems went poorly. The switch back was even worse. Days of work vanished into the ether. Hundreds of users communicated with false sessions, throwing data into the bit bucket. By the time we ironed everything out, the customer had lost two days of productivity and an untold amount of money.
When I sat down with the team to perform the review, I expected the manager to point out all of the mistakes. At the very least, I expected that the consultant (in this case me, although I had very little to do with the process) would be ritually sacrificed to appease upper management. Much to my surprise, the focus of the meeting turned to all of the wonderful "successes" of the process. Servers came up faster than they ever had before. Basic "functionality," as defined by the ability for a local admin to log into the server, was restored in record time. User complaints were down and the project lost less money this time than it had last time. The team left the meeting after a hearty round of hand-shaking with a reasonably hefty bonus check.
After the team walked out, I closed the door. As I turned to the manager, he blurted out, "We run a winning organization here!"
Win/win vs. success/failure
When Stephen Covey proposed the win/win principle as one of his seven habits, he suggested that we arrange every situation so that everyone achieves benefit. He argued, quite well, that people generally take actions that benefit them, and don't mind it if it benefits others as well. By creating situations where we all win, we can increase our own motivation and the motivation of others.
Somewhere along the way though, this concept replaced the success/failure concept. This simple binary concept states that if we don't succeed, we've failed. Stated that way, it's obvious. Everyone nods and smiles in seminars when I bring it up.
I think that this mistake comes from a fundamental misapplication of the tools. The Covey win/win is a motivational concept associated with the discipline of leadership. The success/failure dichotomy more closely addresses measurement, which ties it directly into management. It's possible to arrange for situations to be win/win in a management sense (individuals achieving their personal goals) while still accepting that failure is an option (in this case, the off-site recovery not meeting the required business goals).
A culture of not failing
The confusion of leadership and management has led to an interesting and somewhat dangerous change in the way we measure ourselves. We no longer "fail." Instead, we carefully alter the points by which we measure success and failure so that in every action, every project, every total disaster, it looks like we accomplished something. We reward that accomplishment without assessing whether we succeeded or failed in the larger scheme of things.
Take the rather extreme example above. In terms of its overall success/failure, it can only be described as a failure to properly restore service. However, the manager chose to reset the measurement values so that his team did not fail. They succeeded by meeting artificial marks, not by accomplishing their project objectives. This success, in theory, motivated them to continue improving, because they knew that "their efforts were appreciated."
This culture of not failing shows itself most obviously in the consulting world. We talk a great deal about the various ways we helped our client. However, we don't mention how many times we failed to meet the client's objectives. Every engagement is, on some level, a success. Failure is not an option.
Although I cite the confusion of measurements in the disciplines of leadership and management as the primary cause of this behavior, other possible explanations also exist.
Failing on a project that cost a client millions of dollars is more than just personally embarrassing. It also creates a potential legal liability that few companies wish to risk. The consultant responsible for the failure can expect to see his career rapidly spiral into oblivion.
We advance in the industry (both as employees and consultants) by succeeding. In an economy with increasingly tight job prospects, failure becomes more and more dangerous. Back in the late 1990s, we were almost irreplaceable. Now, not only are there plenty of out-of-work senior consultants, we also have to face increasing competition from far lower cost alternatives overseas. Failing to deliver something—anything—could be suicide.
I've met people who seem unable to recognize failure or self-destructive behaviors. The psychological mechanisms seem to differ from person to person, but the result is the same: They honestly cannot understand the difference between "not failing" and measurable success by meeting business needs.
What can we do about it?
As professionals and consultants, we can't change the world. However, we can take action in our own work to achieve a more healthy balance. This balance actually enhances the quality of our work, eventually leading to further and greater opportunities. We can do this by:
- Honestly acknowledging the difference between personal and business goals. In the above example, personal bests (speed of recovery time) were substituted for business goals (restoration of service). We can hit personal bests and still fail to accomplish our objectives.
- Focusing on the root causes of failure. Failure is rarely an isolated event, focused on a single person. There is typically some kind of process or systemic issue that pushes us into a situation where no matter how hard we work our objectives will not be reached. If we can identify where that error is, we can act to remove it.
- Accepting failure in ourselves. One of the hardest things we have to do is face the fact that we can fail. We can miss the mark; we can go down the wrong path. By accepting that it can happen, we gain the ability to see failure before it occurs; and when it does happen we can accept it gracefully and move on.
Despite our best intentions and our hardest work, our teams, our projects, and we as individuals will occasionally fail. If we reset our expectations and goals aiming for the win/win, we'll never get the valuable lessons that failure can teach us. More importantly, we confuse measurements—making it difficult, if not impossible, to prove our business value to our clients.