Any project, product, or engineering manager knows that we can learn from failure. Sometimes it is painful, but the learning often outweighs the misery of a lost opportunity. Learning new approaches or alternative ways of doing things is how we advance over professions, personal growth, and even technology.
In “Designing Your Life,” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, three types of failures are described. The authors argue – and I agree – that we should approach “learning from failure” differently depending on the category of the missed opportunity.
The first type of failure is a simple screw-up. This is also known as a mistake or error. We know what to do to be successful in the situation, but something just happened to prevent the right thing from happening.
We don’t really learn from screw-ups because we know the right thing to do already. Just this one time, something prevented us from acting in the normal way we would. Maybe you missed your spouse’s birthday because you were swamped at work and travelling across the globe. While the excuse might not pacify your spouse, you have never missed a birthday in over 20 years of marriage. It’s just a screw-up and won’t happen again. You can put a reminder on your calendar or design checklists to prevent future screw-ups.
About a year ago, I had a large-sized screw-up. I was stressed over the impacts of Hurricane Harvey and my father-in-law who had entered hospice care at the time. So, I accidentally copied the wrong course materials into one of the college classes I teach online. Immediately, students swamped my email asking if they had enrolled in the wrong course and why were all the assignment due dates for last semester. Some were accusatory, indicating that the Chapter 1 material had literally changed (it hadn’t). Unfortunately, some students didn’t even notice the error (but that’s a story for another day).
At first, I agonized over how to correct my mistake. I tried of a variety of technical solutions and realized there was not going to be an easy fix. More importantly, I let go of the emotion attached to making a big screw-up and acknowledged that it was a just a one-time error. In the future, I now know that I need to double-check before I double-click!
And I really can’t learn anything from this screw-up that will improve my performance as a professor or enhance my knowledge about becoming a better project, product, or engineering manager. We need to be forgiving of ourselves when we screw-up and then move on.
Burnett and Evans call the second type of failure a “weakness”. These are errors and lost opportunities that we recognize occurring over and over again but are arenas in our lives in which cannot (or will not) improve. Like a screw-up, we know the right action to take but the task is not viewed as important enough to change our behavior. Continuing to make the same mistake may cause us a headache yet we (stubbornly) do so again.
Because blind spots do not cause us long-term emotional or physical distress, we don’t learn from these failures. There really isn’t any opportunity for growth through correcting these weaknesses, either. For example, I tend to put off bookkeeping until the credit card bill arrives. I know that a more effective strategy is to do bookkeeping on a weekly basis (which would also keep my desk clear of papers, invoices, and receipts), but I have a blind spot. I don’t like doing bookkeeping and because the task gets completed anyway, there is no long-term pain that will force me to change my behavior. The worst-case scenario is a small headache as I rush to input revenue and expense data when the bill arrives in the mail.
The failures that we value as project, product, and engineering managers are growth opportunities. These are the reason why we do lessons learned reviews to identify how we can improve future activities to yield better performance. The growth opportunities are the times when we see errors, mistakes, and failures from different perspectives – and when we can calmly and clearly identify a better approach to solving a problem.
During my career, I supported marketing and maintaining customers for a chemical catalyst material. Luckily, I had the opportunity to learn from a failed communication. A client from an Asian country was sending frequent emails asking for a specific technical solution to a problem their plant was facing. There were a half dozen or more names on the cc: list of the email. I didn’t know these folks at the customer’s plant, but I assumed that since my contact had included them on the email, my response should also include these people.
So, I carefully explained the operational adjustment that was necessary and hit the “send” button. The next day, I found the same question in my email inbox with an added statement that implied I had not addressed their problem. I rephrased my response. And the next day, the question re-appeared. I could sense the customer’s growing discontent and frustration. I, too, was puzzled why the plant wouldn’t implement my solution.
After a few rounds of emails that went no place, I decided to reply only to my contact with no one else on the distribution list. This resulted in a new response. He was grateful for the solution offered and it worked perfectly! I learned from this failure.
First, in his cultural context, my contact need to retain “face” in the situation. He could achieve this by providing the solution on his own to his colleagues. With my “reply to all,’ I was robbing him of the chance to demonstrate technical competence in an emotionally-charged environment.
Next, and more importantly, I learned that communication is sensitive to each independent situation. My German customers would have been annoyed had I not used “reply to all”. Today, I like to consider each name on an email list to determine whether its of value to the individual. I also like to consider the social and cultural environment of the communication. And, instead of “assuming,” I will ask.
In short, I learned a lot from this failure that has given me opportunities for both personal and professional growth.
Learning from (Some) Failures
When we take a look back at our, we should categorize the failures and learn from the growth opportunities. There’s no use in losing sleep over a screw-up. It’s just that – a mistake. The right approach is to recognize and acknowledge the error, sincerely apologize, and move on.
Likewise, with blind spots or weaknesses, we should use scheduling tools, checklists, reminders, and other time management tools to help us be more efficient. Yet, it’s okay to acknowledge that changing our behavior in these situations is of limited value in advancing a career as a project, product, or engineering manager. Eliminating the blind spot might free us of minor headaches but won’t necessarily make us better people.
Instead, as you review your performance throughout a day, examine the failures for growth opportunities. These failures, errors, or mistakes take you by surprise. You observed an outcome you didn’t expect. Why? What could be done differently if you encounter a similar situation tomorrow? How would a trusted friend or mentor approach that same situation?
In our on-line tutorial on Design Thinking and in our Agile NPD course, we discuss failing fast and failing often to drive learning. However, we must first categorize the type of failure to benefit from lessons learned. Not all failures offer a growth opportunity, but we must be open and honest when we do encounter such circumstances. Join us for the Agile NPD course or check out our self-study and other NPDP Workshops. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com or 281-280-8717. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
We discuss different customer insight methodologies in NPDP Certification Prep: A 24-Hour Study Guide, and you can find additional references at https://globalnpsolutions.com/services/npd-resources/. Some other books you might enjoy:
- Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
- The Power of Little Ideas by David C. Robertson and Kent Lineback
- Well Designed by Jon Kolko
- 101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar
- The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
Speaking on Design Thinking
- 25 July 2018 at PMI-Houston Energy Corridor Lunch and Learn
- 15 August 2018 at Houston Organizational Development Network Meeting
- 7 September 2018 at Texas Association of Change Management Professionals Conference
Study. Learn. Earn. Simple.
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