Cataloging Failure

Searching for “studying failure” on any search engine shows that it’s a rather popular topic for blogging, discussion and exploration. Most of the results are largely about learning from failure, and I am very much on board with this right now.  I certainly found at least one very adamant opponent to studying failure, and the responses to him were, to me, right on the money. The opponent of this method said you should study your successes. I agree. But not studying your failure, or not examining failure at all or dismissing the examination and reflection on failure is a great way to set yourself up for a big failure later when your methods for achieving success no longer work. 

Just because you did something successfully in the past doesn’t mean that it will work today or tomorrow. Even if you are setting on on something entirely new to invent or discover or implement, if you rely entirely only on what worked for you in the past, then what you are doing is simply putting yourself at risk for failure by not recognizing any weak points in your successes. Success is amazing, and we all strive for it. We also all have some difficulties along the way in defining success. With certain pursuits, it’s easy, especially if they are value based and success is very much looking at a set of numbers to determine whether or not you were successful or not. Pay off debt and save money last year and those were your main goals? Success!  Hooray! Celebrate it. And look back on it. What worked? Excellent! You know what worked and you can build on that. But now your debt is paid off and you have savings. What, exactly, can you learn from that success moving forward? Funny enough, what you learned from in this instance might also be considered failure, which is accumulating debt. Some debt is necessary or inevitable, or sometimes an emergency puts you in a situation where your choices are debt or something worse. But let’s assume your debt wasn’t from an emergency, or from a large purchase like a car or house (a necessity) but from traveling because you felt like you deserved it and you feel like you’ll pay it back in a timely manner. Or you purchased something you desired because it was on sale and even though you didn’t have the money saved up you felt like missing the sale would be missing an opportunity (despite that any savings in a sale would be wiped out in paying interest rates). Those things are a kind of failure to plan or a failure to stick to your guns on saving to buy something. The debt you paid off successfully was, really, the result of some failure. Sure, you learned you can save and pay off debt, but you also learned from the failure of accumulating the debt to begin with. Once you’ve paid off your debt and saved some money, well, it’s a sort of weird “success” that you had based on failure. Now you want to move forward and if you look back and only study your “success” in paying off debt and saving, what do you have to learn from that success? Certainly that you can budget better, pay off things in a timely manner, even set money aside. Those are amazing successes. But moving forward, you really are learning from the failure that got you into debt to begin with. Moreover, if you want to move forward and make your money work for you through investing beyond a savings account, you really can’t learn a lot from the success you just had paying off debt.  You can learn from the saving in order to use money more effectively than you would just spending it, but to move forward and make money work, you’re going to study up on investing.  And studying up on investing is going to mean studying other people’s success and, more importantly, other people’s failures.

One of my favorite books about investing is A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel. The book is about the best methods to have long-term successful investments, yet the entire first half of the book are studies of failures of the market and investors in pursuing and believing in short term bubbles. The failures are there as important reminders that the promise of high yield, quick returns are almost always rooted in a bubble in the market. Failure is a critical part of the less he is teaching. Make no mistake, the second half of the book is very much about his successes and a study of them, but he starts the book with studies of failure for a reason: we learn a lot from failure.  And the other thing we should learn from failure is equally important: how we react to it and how we deal with it in the future. I wrote about this before in how I have largely either over or under reacted to failure and how what I am doing at this blog is setting out to change that.

What does all of this have to do with cataloging failure, though? At the moment in my work life, I am watching a lot of failure in progress. It’s interesting. But it is also perplexing because the failures in progress are repeats of failures that occurred over the past three years. The restructuring of the group I am in is underway, and despite planning, organizing and communication, the failures in progress are almost identical to the failures in progress in the previous two restructurings. In other words, no one involved in the restructuring of our group seems to have went to the other groups and ask the simple question “What didn’t work?” It is an unusually frustrating situation to be in a position to watch this happen and also to have actually communicated these concerns to managers throughout the steps leading up to this transition.  My questions during the re-interviews were very frank: “What is the plan to make this transition better than the previous transitions?” I want to know because I am on the customer front line. I will be the ground troop bearing the burden of angry customer response because I am the direct face of the group. I am the human being they see. The managers are not. They see only human beings at their same level of management who are going to be largely sympathetic to them, and only the most dire failures will be points of contention between them. Here’s the rub: those types of dire failures have been rampant in the previous two transitions. There is a group in charge of a smooth and orderly transition, in fact, that seems to exist but not to be a repository of lessons learned to pass on to the next group for their transition. It’s a bit of expected madness in some ways, as the restructuring is in the guise of a system-wide philosophical shift toward business oriented best practices. The institution is not a business, though. And the people involved are all from within the institution. The transitions that are underway are meant to be changes to the infrastructure that removed the archaic and broken infrastructure already in place. And who is implementing the change? People who have always been at the institution. With no real vested interest in making such best practice changes. It is a bit of a mess.

Having been involved in these institution-wide restructurings, and watching this one fail on all the same points as the previous two, I am curious why no one here is looking back and not simply studying these failures, but cataloging them and actually examining them. However, my position is not such that my opinion or observations about these things are valued.  Frankly, the best I feel I can do is to personally learn from this series of repeating failures. Of course, for myself, all I can do is learn from this for myself and my own future and move forward. To do this, I am cataloging failure. In particular, I am using one of my old tools for creating a personal knowledge base to bullet point all of the failures in the process from my perspective and then examine and study (and research) the failure and do my best to take some positive away from the process. Because I am essentially powerless and my opinion and skills not valued, I am no longer looking toward the people involved in the institution or the process for any sort of explicit or implicit approval of my observations or even of my skills. It’s clear from the ongoing failure on all levels from organization to communication that a person with organizational skills and writing skills and a true commitment to customer and business oriented service management is not wanted or valued. It’s not surprising and it’s expected from past experience.

How, then, can I learn from their failure? It’s a great question. Collecting and cataloging is all well and good as a starting point, but any study that is learned from needs a hypothesis to move it forward. I believe that one of the greatest things I can do with the cataloged failure is research it. Find out why these types of failures continue to happen within organizations and look for organizations that have found ways to either avoid these failure or who have changed what they are doing so radically than the failures would never be possible with the methods they use.  Not only research it, but write about it and research and catalog the organizations that have successfully been able to change themselves and to avoid such common pitfalls. And to look at these failures as points of darkness to be avoided by the individual. In other words, catalog these failures and make them failures not to repeat in my own life.

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