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How to Fail Successfully

When problem solving breaks down and you have to wing your way forward, you might think you’ve failed. But a disciplined response can get you back on track. See also “How to Fail the Right Way.”

Three years ago, my colleagues and I began an ambitious project to strengthen the rule of law in Mexico. To find ways to address this complex challenge, our local partners convened a group of senior leaders with radically different perspectives — politicians, judges, journalists, activists, academics, police, and clergy members. For the group’s first meeting, my team painstakingly designed a cutting-edge process for how to work together. But some of the participants found it confusing and frustrating, and by the end of the second day we had to completely rework it. One of our local partners was furious and accused us of not knowing what we were doing — of “improvising.” The meeting ended well enough, but it took us weeks to get the project and our partnership back on track.

This pattern was repeated many times as the project progressed. We would have a plan for what to do, some aspects of the plan wouldn’t work, and we would have to change it, sometimes wrenchingly. Even though most of the participants now view the project as a success and are continuing to broaden and deepen it, it hasn’t turned out the way we had all hoped, expected, or intended. In this sense, we failed.

All of my firm’s projects bring together diverse teams to try to make progress on complex and contentious public issues. No single party controls the outcome, and we can’t know in advance what will work, so things often unfold differently than planned. Through these experiences, I’ve come to view unexpected results not as a problem but as a spur for the learning and adaptation we need to do. Improvisation, therefore, is a sign not of failure, but of success. There are structured ways to improvise, though, that will help ensure big bumps in the road don’t throw you completely off course.

How to Fail the Right Way

Look forward, not backward. You may not always do things right the first time, but you should be intent on learning from what happened and doing better next time. At the end of every unit of my work  — every quarter, project phase, or workshop day — the team sits down for a “plus/delta” meeting in which everyone gives an answer to two questions about themselves, their colleagues, and the whole team:

  • Plus: “What did I/you/we do well that I/you/we need to keep doing?”
  • Delta (the mathematical symbol for change): “What do I/you/we need to do better next time?”

We did this at the end of the second day of the meeting in Mexico, and it’s how we discovered a new and better way forward.

I’ve come to view unexpected results not as a problem but as a spur for the learning and adaptation we need to do.

The delta question should not be focused on what you did wrong, because you’ll rarely have the opportunity for do-overs; it should look ahead at what you need to do differently. Most of the time, self-assessments and assessments by others will be congruent and not require much discussion. Sometimes, though, perceptions will differ, and the group will have to work through this to decide what to do next. Try not to make the same mistakes twice.

Take measured risks. When working on complex challenges, you’ll need to try doing new things (new offerings) and doing old things in new ways (new processes). But this risk-taking has to be prudent. At my firm, new team members must have the diligence and humility to learn the established way of handling a problem before they invent a new way. We try small experiments in safe contexts (tweaking established offerings and processes with trusting and trusted partners) before trying big experiments in dangerous contexts. In Mexico, for instance, although the work involved a unique situation and lots of trial and error, a foundation of decades of relevant experience enabled us to advance. You can improvise well only if you have practiced a lot.

Ask for feedback. On the second evening of the rule-of-law project meeting in Mexico, I thought things were going well, but some of my colleagues knew they weren’t and so insisted that we sit down, listen carefully to the participants and one another, and work out what to do next. Often, you can’t rely only on your own perspective. Ask for feedback: from your colleagues, clients, and anyone else involved with the problem you’re trying to solve. Ask casually and formally, verbally and in writing, and with specific and open-ended questions. And share all of this feedback with everyone on the team so you can make grounded individual and collective decisions about what to do next.

Be willing to be wrong. The limitation of feedback is that most people don’t learn from it. They are frightened of being wrong — of threats to their position or image (or self-image) — and so they work hard to deny negative assessments. I usually find critical feedback painful and shy away from dealing with it. In Mexico, though, I was attentive and relaxed enough to be able to recognize my habitual response and change what I was doing.

To circumvent defensiveness, I’ve found it helps to be disciplined about receiving and responding to feedback:

  • Ask for feedback.
  • Listen to it but don’t answer it immediately; write it down carefully but refrain from explaining or defending yourself.
  • Take time to consider what in the feedback is useful and to determine what, if anything, you will do differently in the future.
  • Share what you think you did right or wrong, what you learned, and what you will do next.

If you work on problems that are complex and contentious — which teams in all sorts of business contexts often do — and if you can’t, or choose not to, unilaterally control the outcome, then things often won’t turn out as you thought they would or should. But if you can master your approach to feeling your way forward after a setback, you’ll find success even in situations you first thought of as failures.

Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane is a director of Reos Partners, an international consultancy that helps people move forward on their most intractable issues. His most recent book is Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust.

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