Avoiding Unnecessary Failures

I’ve previously mentioned how Edison rejected the idea that he’d ever failed to find a way to make an electric light bulb. Instead, he insisted he’d found 10,000 ways that wouldn’t work.

While these 10,000 experiments were at least in some sense failures, they probably could not have been avoided, since Edison was operating in uncharted territory.

In contrast, the tragic 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, due to blatant violations of NASA’s own launch safety guidelines and despite repeated warnings from worried rocket engineers, was a failure that most certainly could have been avoided.

It was not the only one.

In fact, avoidable failures are almost a certainty for anyone working and living here on Planet Earth.

Which brings up to two important lessons that everyone should learn:

  • How to react to unavoidable failures, and
  • How to avoid as many failures as possible.

Let’s take them one at a time:

How to React to Failures

Since unavoidable failures are lying in wait, somewhere up ahead in your future work and life, there’s value in learning to minimize your suffering and maximize your gains when they occur.

Minimize Your Suffering

Recognize that failure is at most only partially your fault. Even if you run head-on into a brick wall, many factors have to align just right for failure to occur. When you analyze a failure and recognize its causes, you will most likely see that your part in producing the failure was not the main driver.

Emotionally, a failure can be devastating, depressing, discouraging, and downright difficult to deal with.

But rationally, you can identify all the various factors that led up to the failure, and appreciate that you did all you could to avoid that failure. In fact, your actions probably avoided a host of earlier or even worse failures.

Maximize Your Gain

As Edison exemplified, failures provide important opportunities to learn. But only if you look for the lessons.

That’s why every failure deserves an “after action analysis” that includes an effort to determine not only what went wrong, but what you did right. Of course, answers to these questions give you opportunities to discover what you can do better next time.

Edison presumably learned something from each and every one of his 10,000 “failures.” If you learn as much from yours, you may well come up with an equivalent “light bulb” of your own in the future.

How to Avoid as Many Failures as Possible

We’ve granted that some failures are unavoidable. But others aren’t. This means that we may be able to anticipate the potential for certain failures and – in some cases – eliminate or reduce those possibilities.

Knowing you can’t entirely eliminate your likelihood of future failures, if you nevertheless want to cut back on those possibilities, here’s how to proceed:

Set Reasonable Expectations

People often consider a project to have failed when its outcome doesn’t meet initial expectations. But if those expectations are unreasonable, failure becomes inevitable.

One important way to limit your future failures, therefore, is to make sure you’re not overreaching. Consider more than once whether the expectations of the effort are reasonable. Check your own judgment of reasonableness against the evaluations of others you trust.  

You may not be able to avoid working toward unreasonable expectations, but you certainly can reconsider your inability to achieve those expectations as something other than a simple “failure.”

Properly Manage Execution

Sometimes a perfectly reasonable effort to achieve perfectly reasonable expectations fails because the execution is entirely inadequate. The effort may be launched with insufficient resources, untrained or incompetent personnel, a vague project plan, or too few opportunities for oversight and mid-course corrections.

Just as “the Devil is in the details,” success or failure of a particular effort is very often determined by the quality of the execution.

It’s good when you can recognize the source of a recent failure as improperly managed execution. It’s even better when you can see this problem early on, and begin to properly manage execution soon enough during an effort to avoid a large number of the opportunities for failure.

Respond to Changing Conditions

In today’s rapidly changing business, social, political, economic, health, and environmental settings, a perfectly well-planned and well-run effort can end in failure because its surrounding situation changed midway through.

A good way to avoid this category of failures is to carefully monitor the context of the effort underway. If you can identify important changes in external conditions early enough, you can potentially make corresponding changes that can sidestep this source of failure.

Although avoidable failures lurk around every corner, it’s good to know there are possibilities to see them coming and make adjustments that prevent them from flattening you and the things you’re trying to do.

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