Monday, December 31, 2012

Eight 2012 posts you might have missed

As we wrap up the year, here are a few posts that struck me as notable from the past 12 months.

Paul Downs: if you don't understand why a boss wouldn't give up, don't start your own company (June 19)

Steven Johnson: "We have a tendency to dismiss error" when we shouldn't (June 27)

A good model can be useful even when it fails (October 29)

"Wrong thinking" is a key part of imagination (June 26)

Jay Goltz - lessons from hiring & firing 8 production managers (May 17)

Mistake stories come alive when we discuss them (April 17)

Peyton Manning going to Denver: "I have to go from now and make it the right decision" (March 22). Of course, he did make it the right decision. Denver is the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

A thought on due diligence (February 9)

Have a great 2013 and keep making productive mistakes!

"It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain"

"It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain."

Nobel-Prize-winning researcher Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, from her autobiography as quoted in the New York Times. Dr. Levi-Montalcini died last week at age 103.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"We must learn to love uncertainty and failure"

This is from the 15 Jan 2011 edition of the Guardian. Not brand-new, but the message is still current:

"We must learn to love uncertainty and failure, say leading thinkers"

Being comfortable with uncertainty, knowing the limits of what science can tell us, and understanding the worth of failure are all valuable tools that would improve people's lives, according to some of the world's leading thinkers.

The ideas were submitted as part of an annual exercise by the web magazine Edge, which invites scientists, philosophers and artists to opine on a major question of the moment. This year it was, "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

The magazine called for "shorthand abstractions" – a way of encapsulating an idea or scientific concept into a short description that could be used as a component of bigger questions.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Hat tip to David Cancel.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A misunderstanding redirects a career

Mistakes can take you to new places. That's a theme of the upcoming Mistake Bank book, and it was underlined in a New York Times interview of Blair LaCorte, CEO of XOJets, an executive jet airliner. LaCorte explained how he first got into high tech:

My dad had advised me to work for people I wanted to learn from. I always remembered Eric Herr, who had been a managing partner at the Michael Allen Company, a consulting firm where I had worked one summer in business school. I contacted him and he mentioned a position at Sun, which I assumed meant Sun Oil. I told him I'd take it, that I trusted him and that I didn't need to know any more. I told my friends I was taking a leave from consulting to work at Sun Oil for a year. When the offer letter arrived, however, it was from Sun Microsystems.

That misunderstanding changed my life. For the next 12 years, I worked at a variety of technology companies. I loved the innovation in this industry; merging my business skills with colleagues' technical skills allowed us to move very quickly.

Another idea is proved in this story: always take your dad's advice.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mistake Bank book cover image

Hi, all, I wanted to share this very cool cover that Michael Morris has designed for the book. I'm sure it will evolve as we get toward final publication, but it looks great already. Thanks Michael!

Keep your eyes peeled for a Kickstarter campaign kicking off after the New Year. Pass the word!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Carol Bartz on what you can learn from a bad boss, and watch out for that flying tissue box!

Having a lousy boss is one of the most unpleasant experiences possible in the workplace. Is it possible, though, that there is a silver lining in having a bad boss? Carol Bartz, the former CEO of Yahoo and Autodesk, thinks so. In the way that "mistakes make deep imprints," your experiences with a bad boss can help you learn what not to do when you rise to that level yourself. Bartz described her experiences at an event at Wharton's San Francisco Campus. They were summarized in an article in Knowledge@Wharton:

While universally despised, the dreaded bad boss, said Bartz, can teach his or her unfortunate employees a great deal. "Think about the good bosses you had. You remember that they're good, but you don't know exactly why. But with a bad boss, you remember every detail about whatever [he or she] did. You really have it in sharp focus. Not that you should run off and be bad managers, but we often can be shaped more by some of the negative things that happen in our lives, like a bad boss. And of course I have a little bit of Silicon Valley in me, which says, 'A bad boss will soon move on to be somebody else's bad boss, so just wait him out.' But if you happen to be in a business where they wait around for 10 years, then maybe you've got to move out first."

Being assigned to a bad boss may not be your mistake, but it's a mistake nonetheless, so you might as well learn from it. And keep your poise, like this woman in a NY Times piece by Phyllis Korkki:

Noreen P. Denihan is an executive assistant who sees her job as managing the life of her boss, Donald J. Gogel, chief executive of the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. As such, she has no problem taking care of some of his personal responsibilities.

Ms. Denihan has been an assistant since 1976 and can remember, in one of her previous workplaces, when someone threw a box of tissues at her because the type she had bought would irritate his nose.

“The box hit the floor and I just stepped over it” as if nothing had happened, she said.

When people fly off the handle in my presence, I tell myself that it's because of their own issues and struggles, rather than anything I did. I tell myself that, but I still get offended and angry. I wish I had Noreen Denihan's equanimity. She is a rock star.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

#1 Employee fear? Making a mistake

There comes a time, when you've been writing about learning from mistakes for five years or so, when you think the message must have gotten through - when mistakes happen, they are often due to process or business complexities or miscommunication rather than incompetence or carelessness. Acknowledging and sharing them are essential tools to drive learning and improvement in the organization as a whole. They should not be hidden, or fixed quietly. In short, they are not to be dreaded.

Then reality strikes. HR consulting company Robert Half International surveyed employees to assess the primary fears in the workplace. "Making errors on the job" was the #1 response, cited by 28% of the respondents.

Which just goes to show how much work we have left to do. Bosses, you need to change this situation. Can you please read some of the top books of 2011 and 2012 on this topic? Or read this excerpt from the Mistake Bank book and order a copy when it is published after the New Year? Thank you.

[Hat tip to David K. Williams and Mary Michelle Scott for pointing out the survey.]

Thursday, December 13, 2012

For nonprofits, sharing stories of failure reduces their potency

Many nonprofits struggle with difficulties in mission, fundraising and viability, and other issues. So failure is familiar in this sector. Recently Sarika Bansal of the New York Times wrote about how nonprofits deal with failure in the newspaper's Opinionator blog. Bansal writes:

Seven years ago, the consulting group Bridgespan presented details on the performance of several prestigious nonprofits. Nearly all of them had one thing in common — failure. These organizations had a point at which they struggled financially, stalled on a project or experienced high rates of attrition. “Everyone in the room had the same response, which was relief,” said Paul Schmitz, the chief executive of the nonprofit Public Allies. “It was good to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling with these things.”

And the following is two good reasons why hiding failure is counterproductive:

“Not talking about [failure] is the worst thing you can do, as it means you’re not helping the rest of the organization learn from it,” said Jill Vialet, who runs the nonprofit Playworks. “It gives [the failure] a power and a weight that’s not only unnecessary, but damaging.” Vialet instead supports failing “out loud” and “forward,” meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself.

Finally, Bansal points to a website that collects failure stories submitted by nonprofits (we love these sites!):

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"You look for one thing and find something else"

"That's the way it goes sometimes: you look for one thing and find something else." Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote, Vol 1, chapter 16

From the Burton Raffel English translation of "Don Quixote."

This echoes the Ira Glass - via Kathryn Schulz - definition of a story (and one of the ways to view a mistake that I emphasize in the upcoming Mistake Bank book).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Don Quixote: "In every disaster, fortune always leaves a door ajar"

"In every disaster, fortune always leaves a door ajar."

Don Quixote, Vol 1, chapter 15

For the past few years, I've picked out a long classic novel to read as the days grow short. Last year it was "Anna Karenina" (one of my top books of 2012). And this year it's the Burton Raffel English translation of "Don Quixote."

And now, after so many years have passed since first reading, Cervantes seems to be writing about the power of mistakes and delusions. The above quote underlines that point.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Best Books of the Year 2012

These are the best books I've read this year concerning human error, making mistakes and learning from them. (They may have been published in prior years.)

1. "Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy," Amy Edmondson. The preeminent researcher on organizational learning and development sums up her 20-year career in this book. It covers teamwork, collaboration and leadership, and is more full of common sense than a shelfload of self-help books. Money quote: "Facing the potential for larger failure when smaller failures interact, leaders in complex organizations must promote resiliency by acknowledging that failure is inevitable, making it psychologically safe to report and discuss problems, and promoting habits of vigilance that support rapid detection and responsiveness."

2. "The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don't," Nate Silver. Almost a companion piece to Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," which was on last year's list. Silver attacks misplaced self-confidence in human forecasting and shows us that by embracing uncertainty and weighing the odds, we are capable of making far better predictions than we usually do.

3. "From Lemons to Lemonade: Squeeze Every Last Drop of Success Out of Your Mistakes," Dean Shepherd. A researcher from Indiana University takes a personal-psychology viewpoint on the mistakes question. With very useful discussions on various ways to bounce back from mistakes, and why we feel so bad when we fail, this book has a prominent place in my "Mistake Learner's Bookshelf." Money quote: "Failure is not the opposite of success."

4. "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure," Tim Harford. Looking at human organizations as complex-adaptive systems, Harford shows many examples of groups finding success by responding to initial failure by adapting and learning; as well as an equal number of those who didn't adapt and failed utterly as a result. His views, coming from an economics background, and Amy Edmondson's, from an organizational development perspective, mesh nicely.

5. "Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. If you want to learn about human fallibility and the trouble it can cause, you can't do better than to consult the Russian masters. If "War and Peace" illustrated bureaucratic and organizational folly, this book does the same with social relations. And, did you hear there's a movie out?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Excerpt from "The Hard Way: A Book About Courageous Failure"

What follows is a brief excerpt of the book "The Hard Way: A Book About Courageous Failure," by Tuuti Piippo and Miika Peltola (original title: "Kantapään kautta"), which includes 15 in-depth interviews of Finnish top entrepreneurs, artists and leaders and their failure stories. It was translated from the original Finnish by Tuuti Piippo. We thank Tuuti and Miika for sharing this excerpt and look forward to the entire book being available in English soon!

There is no failure

Joanne was 21 and restless.

She wanted to write novels for a living, but her mother and father would not agree with the idea. They feared that the girl’s overflowing imagination would never pay for a house or a pension, no matter how amusing it might be.

The family settled for compromise. After graduating, Joanne would study languages instead of literature. She went to college and changed her major to Classics without telling her family.

Joanne was not afraid of being poor, like her parents who came from a background of poverty. She was afraid of failure. At the university, success meant excelling in exams. Joanne would rather sit in a cafe writing stories than attend lectures, but somehow managed to get through the exams.

Seven years after her graduation, Joanne’s marriage had just broken to pieces. Her mother had died unexpectedly. She was an unemployed single parent, depressed, with just enough money to stay off the street.

She was the worst failure she knew – her biggest fears, as well as those of her parents, had become a reality. Joanne felt like she was in a pitch black tunnel, but could not see the famous light at the end.

Her utter failure stripped down everything but the essential. Joanne finally stopped pretending and confessed to herself that she was a writer. So, she used all her energy to write out an idea she’d gotten.

She was still alive. It was a good start.

If Joanne had managed to hold one of her temporary jobs, succeeded even a little, she might not have found the determination to carry out her calling. The failure taught and revealed more willpower and self-discipline than any passed exam ever had. She took the insight and empowerment as a sign that she should keep trying.

Joanne wrote on her old typewriter in coffee shops. Every time her daughter fell asleep in her stroller, she would start typing like mad. When she had finished her first manuscript, she tucked the first three chapters in an envelope and sent them to an agent.

The envelope came back quickly with a reply: No, thanks.

On the second try, she found an agency that would start offering the manuscript to publishers. They declined one after another.

After one year and twelve rejections, Bloomsbury got interested. They offered Joanne a £1500 advance for the book. She accepted the offer, jumping and screaming from joy. The publisher made a first edition of one thousand copies.

The book was called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone" [in the US, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"]. Joanne is now better known as J. K. Rowling.

copyright Tuuti Piippo and Miika Peltola. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Never give up your right to be wrong"

I found this artfully-written note pinned to the bulletin board at the kids' workout room at the local YMCA:

It says:

Aim for success, not perfection.

Never give up your right to be wrong because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life.

Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can paradoxically make you a far happier and more productive person!!

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Growing past a microbusiness requires letting managers make mistakes

From the New York Times "You're The Boss" blog, Josh Patrick discusses how a business changes as it grows from a "microbusiness" - i.e., very small, to a "lower middle" business - one with more than $5 million in sales and more than two dozen employees. He describes his experience in growing his own vending machine business to that level:

The real change for me was learning how to manage. I couldn’t do it by brute force. I had to learn to set standards and then to inspect to make sure our standards were being met. My dashboard was part of the solution. The other part was providing face-to-face feedback and learning to hold others accountable.

That required learning to trust and to allow our managers to make mistakes. When we were a small company, mistakes weren’t O.K. They happened, but no one would admit they happened, least of all me. As we grew I had to learn to let others make decisions and then learn from their mistakes. The key was keeping the mistakes small enough that they didn’t sink the business. The better I got at allowing myself and others to learn from their mistakes, the better my company became.

In a small business, the owner makes every meaningful decision. Workers follow her direction. But as Patrick points out, by the time you approach the lower-middle size, there are simply too many decisions to make. Meaningful delegation is required. And, with that, the ability for people to mess up and learn from it. "Creating the Culture for Learning From Mistakes" is a chapter in the upcoming Mistake Bank book, and the process described here is part of that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Martha Stewart gets a second chance to be an icon

One theme of the upcoming Mistake Bank book is that we are offered second chances if we make a mistake. This is illustrated in a recent New York Times article portraying Martha Stewart as a newly-minted icon of craftspeople and artisans. Here's an excerpt:

In and around the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Martha Stewart has spawned meet-up groups for people who want to work on crafting, blog items about her sighting at the Brooklyn Bowl rock club, sales of her books at the Brooklyn Kitchen cook shop and decorative displays in the shop window of Urban Rustic, a market and cafe.

Beyond Williamsburg, Ms. Stewart has drawn crafting and baking fans from Saratoga Springs to San Francisco who have made the most-shared site among its rivals on the social site Pinterest, according to Pinfluencer.

While some Martha Stewart fans abandoned their magazine subscriptions and Ms. Stewart’s high-thread-count sheets after she went to prison over her 2004 conviction for lying to federal investigators about a stock sale, this new generation of fans say her prison time only gives her more street credibility.

“She’s such a Suzy homemaker and also did some time in the joint,” said Luis Illades, an owner of Urban Rustic, where some of Ms. Stewart’s store-bought decorations appeared.

“That has helped cement her iconic image. Before, she was someone your mother would follow.”

Crystal Sloane, 29, who grew up on a dairy farm outside Saratoga Springs, N.Y., reading her mother’s issues of Martha Stewart Living, has begun her own business called Vintage by Crystal, designing miniature animals that Ms. Stewart eventually featured on “The Martha Stewart Show.”

“She’s like the Jesus of the craft world,” she said.

“Not that I like criminals, but I heard that she just took some bad advice. Anybody can make mistakes.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Excerpt from The Mistake Bank book

I've mentioned a Mistake Bank book which I'm currently working on. It's titled, "The Mistake Bank: How to Succeed by Forgiving Your Mistakes and Embracing Your Failures." I have sent a draft of the book to a friend who is editing it for me. Michael Morris is working on illustrations for the book and, most immediately, I will be running a Kickstarter campaign to underwrite the first print run of the book.

Please stay tuned for more information on the Kickstarter project. Please consider supporting the project and sharing the project with your friends and colleagues. Here's a taste of the book from the Introduction:

Many years ago I worked with some great people at GTE in Tampa, Florida. I was on a six-month assignment and, during my last week there, I had a ton of things to do to get ready for my next move to Boston.

That Thursday, I had agreed to meet my friend Phil for lunch, but before that, I rushed over to another part of town to return my cable box. I ran in, dropped the box off, and ran back to my car. There was no car in the space in front of me, so instead of backing out, I zipped forward.

When the tires hit the concrete curb at the front of the parking space, I knew I was in trouble. I took my foot off the gas, but the car didn't stop until the tires had run up and over and the underside of the car had fallen hard onto the curb.

I backed up over the curb again, then out of the parking space. There was a grinding noise from the bottom of the car and it wouldn't go faster than 20 miles per hour. I carefully creeped along the side roads for several miles till I reached the dealer. It took a while for them to look at the car and let me know what needed to be fixed (thankfully, it wasn't bad).

By now I was terribly late for lunch. I went to a pay phone (see how long ago it was?) and called Phil at the restaurant. "I am so sorry, but I won't make it for lunch. You see, my car..."

Phil interrupted. "You need to get to the restaurant now. There are 25 people here for your goodbye lunch."

I hung up, called a cab, and eventually made it to the restaurant. In the dining room, a long stretch of tables was full of empty drink glasses, plates, and about a dozen people who were still there after 90 minutes of waiting. It was a memorable good-bye lunch, for them as well as for me. 

* * *

There are a few lessons I took away from that experience. One is that, as stated by Wharton School researcher Paul Schoemaker, “mistakes make a deep imprint.” I can remember that story in vivid detail more than twenty-five years later. Even as I write this, I can hear the sound of the car’s undercarriage crunching against the curb.

Another is that rushing doesn’t necessarily get things done faster. In fact, it can slow you down significantly.

The final lesson is that friends are precious gifts. That my colleagues would go to the trouble of planning this elaborate surprise lunch, and then hang around long after they’d finished eating to wait for my arrival, is something I’ll never forget.

Three life lessons. All from just one mistake.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Successful businessman looks back on earlier failures

In 2010,'a Christine Brozyna wrote a piece about Bob's Red Mill, a seller of grain products, being sold to its employees via an ESOP program. In the article, company founder Bob Moore shared some lessons about business success, and failure:

Moore said there is no secret to building a successful business, just hard work and luck.

"You can sell your house, take your money, and test the waters by doing something you believe in," he said. "And maybe you'll be successful and maybe you won't, and that's what entrepreneuring has been for me, and I have failed."

Earlier in his life, Moore owned a gas station that he thought was a great success. It flourished for five years, but ultimately went under. And in 1988, his mill was burned down by an arsonist.

"I lost everything," he said. "I lost our entire investment. I know what it feels like in my stomach when you can't pay the bills."

But he learned from his mistakes and kept taking chances, eventually making his mark in American households.

Bob told a longer version of the gas station story to Inc. magazine:

To put a few extras on my family's table, I'd been working weekends at a Shell station. A sign went up on one corner saying a new Mobil station would be opening. I called, and pretty soon we had a deal. I sold our house and put the $4,500 down on the gas station. I quit my job and went into business.

In those days, you didn't just take care of cars; you took care of people. I would wipe windows, check the tires and underneath the hood. I cleared 4 and a half cents a gallon, 5 cents for high test. My bookkeeper would laugh at me. But I wore a freshly washed uniform every day, and the sun was always shining.

Then the smog started to get bad. Charlee, my wife, and I felt that getting out of L.A. would be good for the boys' health. I drove around the state looking at gas stations for sale and ended up buying one in Mammoth Lakes, California, in September 1959.

I had a pocketful of cash from selling our house and station in Los Angeles. We bought a big mobile home. We took trips with the boys. We bought a lot of things we didn't need. Mammoth Lakes was a ski town. But Thanksgiving and Christmas went by with no snow. Then we got 14 feet of snow in January! The roads were impassable. The snow was still deep in July, and that kept away the summer tourists. One year after leaving Los Angeles, I was broke.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Self-compassion is more important to success than self-esteem

Heidi Grant Halvorson, writing for the HBR Blog Network, asserts that self-esteem, rather than being a useful tool for enabling high performance, may instead be destructive.

Rather, the idea of self-compassion, forgiving yourself for mistakes and failures, is more beneficial, and may drive success. Writes Halvorson:

A growing body of research, including new studies by Berkeley's Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, suggest that self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, may be the key to unlocking your true potential for greatness.

Now, I know that some of you are already skeptical about a term like "self-compassion." But this is a scientific, data-driven argument — not feel-good pop psychology. So hang in there and keep an open mind.

Self-compassion is a willingness to look at your own mistakes and shortcomings with kindness and understanding — it's embracing the fact that to err is indeed human. When you are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, you neither judge yourself harshly, nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your awesome qualities to protect your ego. It's not surprising that self-compassion leads, as many studies show, to higher levels of personal well-being, optimism and happiness, and to less anxiety and depression.

Self-compassion is a core ingredient of grit, which you've read about here in the past. Self-compassion makes it safer to admit error and share stories of mistakes, which has the powerful benefit of raising the knowledge of an entire team or company.

Sharing stories about mistakes and failure is another way to enable self-compassion. It helps us understand we are not alone in stumbling from time to time. That's one of the purposes of this blog and of the Mistake Bank book, currently in process.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Paul Downs stops blaming the economy for his sales downturn

Paul Downs, writing in the New York Times You're The Boss blog, published a series of posts on dealing with a downturn in orders this year. The final post discussed Downs's coming to terms with his responsibility to solve the problem and not blame outside forces. This is the "sense of agency" and it comes up again and again in learning from mistakes (it's a key focus in Chapter 1 of the Mistake Bank book).

Over the last few years, I have made a conscious effort to find ways to get advice from other business owners. Writing this blog was the first thing I did, and I have found the feedback from commenters to be valuable. This year, in an effort to find a more focused set of advisers, I joined a Vistage business group. We meet once a month, and a portion of each meeting is devoted to analysis of business issues that each member presents. When a member of the group presents a problem, the other owners listen, ask questions and then suggest solutions.

Through the spring, I kept the group updated as my sales collapsed, and in May (as I explained in Thursday’s post), I told everyone that I felt like a victim of a bad economy. The thing was, nobody else in the business group was having such a hard time. Many of them felt the economy could be better but that conditions were still favorable. I seemed to be the only one who was suffering and the only one who thought that the problem was out of my control. One of the members told me bluntly: “I don’t want to hear any more about the Euro or health care or whatever excuses you come up with. This is YOUR problem, and YOU have to solve it.”

Excellent advice. Complaining hadn’t helped, upping my ad budget hadn’t worked, so I had to keep trying things until we either recovered or went under. But if it wasn’t an outside problem, then what could it be? It had to be something about my marketing, and that meant the problem was in AdWords. Once I decided the problem had to be there, I started looking at the data again to try to find a solution. But this time I approached my analysis with the conviction that the problem was something I had done — not something that was beyond my control.

Read Downs's post to learn what happened.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Trying to be all things to all people costs you money"

There is a very useful story in the You're the Boss blog in the NY Times today. In it, Josh Patrick explains a dilemma common to small consulting firms and other, as he calls them, "micro-businesses":

If your business doesn’t have enough cash, you will be under stress. That is something I can attest to from first-hand experience. When you don’t have enough cash, you feel pressure to take any client who walks in the door. But this is usually a mistake. Trying to be all things to all people will cost you money.

Most owners understand this. But when you are under pressure to pay your bills, it’s hard to say no — even if the customer is outside of your target market. You need money, you take the business, and you often end up spending an inordinate amount of time serving the customer. And if you stay in this cycle, you put your business at risk. When you own a microbusiness, burning time is just like burning money.

Several years ago, I did some work with a graphic design firm, Gray Cat Studio. Michelle Bisceglia, the owner, had built a knowledge base working with specialty food manufacturers. She knew a great deal about the businesses and what made them successful.

When I first started working with her, she would take work from anyone. She often lost money when she went outside her knowledge area, but like many microbusiness owners, she was often short on cash.

We worked on developing her niche and I coached her in using a new word: No. Over time, two things happened. She was able to charge higher fees because of her expertise, and it took her much less time to complete projects. This allowed her to create a cash cushion, which made it even easier to say no to customers who didn’t fit her profile.

So: mistake is taking any piece of business you can. Solution: create discipline to say "no" to inappropriate customers, raise price to high-value customers, build a cash cushion to deal with the inevitable peaks and valleys of selling. Degree of difficulty: high.

But even though it's difficult, it's vital. There is a similar story in the upcoming Mistake Bank book on this very topic. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Decathlon champion discusses failure in business

From the New York Times obituary of 1956 Olympic decathlon champion Milt Campbell, who died this past Friday. This quote establishes Campbell's sense of agency that likely fueled his athletic drive as well:

[Campbell] later became a motivational speaker, with failure in business as his own motivation. “When I lost all my money in the meat-trucking business in 1976,” he told The Times in 1980, “I realized that I understood about success and failure. I realized that it had nothing to do with anyone else, only me.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Timing is everything: inventors' product returns 10 years after initial failure

From the "Prototypes" column in the New York Times, a discussion with Vanessa Troyer and Chris Farentinos, inventors of the Elephant Trunk, a lockable home mailbox for parcels.

Back in 1999, when [Ms. Troyer] and Mr. Farentinos dreamed up the Elephant Trunk, it was designed to be large enough to hold the television-size computers that people were ordering as e-commerce began to take off. But while it was still in prototype, flat-screen computer monitors came along, defeating its purpose.

“It was deflating,” Ms. Troyer said. “All this time and money and energy had been wasted.”...

Even after shoving the Elephant Trunk into the proverbial drawer, the couple were convinced that it would eventually see the light of day; it was just a matter of when. Sure, computers had become skinnier, but more and more people were shopping online for a wide range of products, and they often were not home to accept the packages.

Beyond the annoyance of coming home and finding those packages “behind a planter,” Ms. Troyer said, or wet from the rain, there was the danger of parcel theft.

Still, when they floated the idea of a mailbox for packages, the response from retailers was, “I think it’s too soon for that,” Ms. Troyer said....

Last year, good timing was compounded by luck when Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos met with Theresa Graham, a merchant for the builders hardware category at Home Depot. As they chatted, Ms. Graham explained that she was a working mother who often came home to boxes strewed all over the porch. She said to Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos, “You know, what I’d really like to see is not a mailbox, but a parcel drop,” Ms. Troyer recalled.

“Chris and I looked at each other and our eyes lit up. It was like, O.K., it’s time.”

The Elephant Trunk is beginning a 3-month sales trial in selected Home Depot stores. Will it become a success the second time around? We'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Even if you have strong capabilities, you still need to sell yourself

A mistake story from Kevin Liles, CEO of KWL Management, as quoted in Adam Bryant's Corner Office column in the New York Times.

I wanted to be the host of a new hip-hop show, and I didn’t get the job. I was the biggest guy in the marketplace. Given what I’d done, that should have sold me. But I didn’t sell myself. So, after that, I realized that no matter what I have done before, I had to learn the art of selling. I had to learn the art of explaining my value proposition when I show up somewhere. How do I differentiate myself? I know who I am. I’m very clear. If I’m meeting someone, I’m very clear about their value proposition, and I know what my value proposition is.

This is very good advice, and something I have trouble doing. I oftentimes expect my resume to sell me. I am proud of my accomplishments and expect that others would see the value in them, and connect it to their needs. But, as Kevin Liles says, that's not enough. I need to understand what they need and point them to what I can do to directly address that need.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A good model can be useful even when it fails

As the rains from Hurricane Sandy fall around us here in Central Pennsylvania, I'm checking out various computer models about the track of the storm, and am reminded about this quote from Nate Silver's great book on predictions, "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't":

A good model can be useful even when it fails. "It should be a given that whatever forecast we make on average will be wrong," Ozonoff told me. "So usually it's about understanding how it's wrong, and what to do when it's wrong, and minimizing the cost to us when it's wrong."

The key is in remembering that a model is a tool to help us understand the complexities of the universe, and never a substitute for the universe itself. This is important not just when we make predictions.

This storm tracking graphic is a model. Outside, the rain is falling and the wind is beginning to blow. That's reality.

Source: National Hurricane Center

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Advice from world-famous fisherman: strike a balance between staying the course and changing up

My 9-year-old son loves the show "River Monsters," in which fisherman Jeremy Wade tries to catch large predators in the world's rivers. We watched an episode this past weekend in which Wade is trying to catch a large stingray in an Argentinian river. While contemplating repeated failure - something in the river has been stealing his bait over and over again - Wade offhandedly shares some wisdom while he waited for another bite on the line:

Always there's this conflict between, do I carry on doing what I'm doing or do I change something? You have to reach a happy medium with that. You sort of have to give something a good go, but be prepared to change if it looks like you're doing something wrong.

This is useful for people involved in creative work, or innovation. Striking "a happy medium" between pivoting too quickly and staying too long with a failing strategy is crucial to long-term success.

Albert Wenger is discussing how to balance conflicting items like this in his "Scylla and Charybdis" series on his blog Continuations.

The section I refer to begins around the 12-minute mark of the video.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Infusionsoft co-founder Clate Mask on growing with the wrong customers

Great mistake story by Infusionsoft founder Clate Mask from the FailCon blog. FailCon '12 will be held next Monday, October 22, in San Francisco. More info here.

In 2009, we decided to remove the setup fee in our subscription service. We were on a mission to reach 100,000 small business customers worldwide and I wanted to get there faster. This decision nearly killed Infusionsoft.

Ambitious entrepreneurs will always push hard to acquire more customers, but too often, we push forward in our business growth initiatives without realizing the cost of acquiring the wrong customers. These are the ones who complain often, demand extra resources and erode employee morale. They might add to the top line, but they certainly don’t add to the bottom line—or the balance sheet. Know who your target market is so you weed out these bad customers and protect your bottom line.

We learned this lesson the hard way. For over a year, we watched our cancelations skyrocket and our lifetime customer value plummet. I knew we had to figure out a solution and fast. I couldn’t stand by and watch this decision ultimately lead to the death of Infusionsoft.

What we did was get totally clear on who our target customer is. This is the most important thing you can do to avoid hemorrhaging cash on costly customers. This clear understanding informs every function of the business. Entrepreneurs who don’t invest enough time in this will pay a tremendous price when their growth ambition outstrips their target customer clarity.

In 2011, we reintroduced an implementation service to enable our customers to succeed. This service is well worth the investment to new customers, and we realized that charging for valuable services actually discourages the wrong customers from purchasing. Requiring customers to purchase implementation services leads to customers who are more likely to show up for training calls. They are more likely to invest in their own success.

I have learned a similar lesson - business customers don't value free.

"Regrets are about the things you wanted to try and didn't"

From the New York Times "Boss" column. This is JuE Wong, CEO of skin-care products company StriVectin:

To me, regrets are not about failures; they’re about things you wanted to try and didn’t. Because I never felt guilty about my choices and my husband was behind me, I was able to do my best.

A poignant note to this quotation is that Wong's husband, died suddenly just after she had reached the CEO level in 2009, at a prior company. Her career success has clearly been a team effort.

Friday, October 12, 2012

How a great leader handles failure

The US sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote a great piece on Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Posnanski points out that Johnson has won everywhere he's been (New York Mets, LA, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and now in Washington) and that, almost without exception, the teams got worse after he left.

One episode stood out as instructive for leaders wanting to learn how to manage their teams through failure:

I asked a close Nationals observer what Johnson has done so well this year, and he told a little story that has a lot more to do with presence than anything else. In July, the Nationals were a huge surprise … but there were plenty of people who did not expect the winning to last. Washington started a four-game series against the Braves, the team in second place at the time, and promptly blew a 9-0 lead, eventually losing 11-10 in extra innings.

How did Johnson respond? He told the press that he had managed the worst game of his life. He could not believe how bad he had been as a manager. "Obviously, when they score 10 runs, that's my fault," he said. And "I've got to live with it."

"It was genius," the observer said. "He took every bit of the responsibility. He didn't say a single word about the players. He didn't say a single word about how they had to move on and forget it. He took all the blame. He talked about how he had let the guys down. And they split the series, and took off from there."

When Posnanski uses the word "presence" he means composure, self-awareness, and perspective. A loss, even a devastating loss, was merely one game out of 162. Johnson's team is young. If he lost his composure - if he overreacted to this one game - it would send the wrong message to this team, that an embarrassing loss is somehow more meaningful than any old loss. By taking the blame, he opened space for the players to forgive themselves and move on.

Johnson's motto, keep yourself "not too high, not too low," can help every leader.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Celebrate International Day for Failure - October 13

Welcome news from Finland - the third annual International Day for Failure is this Saturday, October 13. You can leave your own failure story on their site (I did). Or arrange a local event.

17 countries will host Day for Failure events.

How could you go wrong by celebrating failure and, especially, learning from it?

Day for Failure from Day For Failure on Vimeo.

Hat tip to Tuuti Piippo

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Most failures are less impactful than they feel"

From a FailCon interview with Gleb Budman, CEO of BackBlaze, an online storage provider. The entire interview is great and I encourage you to read it on the FailCon site. But I couldn't resist this nugget:

Q: Best lesson learned on how to deal with failure?

Gleb: Acknowledge. Learn. Then move on. As entrepreneurs we aim to succeed, but know that we must take risks to do that and risk implies a chance of failure. When that failure happens – acknowledge that the team tried, but we failed. Learn what you can from the experience. (I sometimes even like to blog about it, such as about our “almost acquisition” post.) Then move on – most failures are less impactful than they feel.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How well is Apple handling its Maps fiasco?

Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, posted the above letter to the Apple website last week, responding to a week of controversy over the iPhone's Maps application. Apple Maps, replacing a Google-developed app, was praised for its beautiful design and Flyover feature, but vilified for its geographic errors. David Pogue, the New York Times tech columnist, wrote of Maps, "It may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed."

Some commentators are already toting up the damage from the Maps mistake - very premature in my view. I'd prefer to look at Apple's actions regarding the situation using the framework from my 99u piece ("How to Bounce Back From a Big Mistake"), which will form part of the upcoming Mistake Bank book. Here are the main steps involved in bouncing back:

1. Own Your Mistake

To their credit, Apple did not blame its users, or the tech press (which could have been accused fairly of piling on). The company is living with the consequences.

2. Fix it, and Make Sure Others Are Aware

There was no need to make sure people are aware of the Maps issue; it became worldwide news. As far as fixing the mistake, Apple cannot fix it immediately. It will take months if not years of updating. Cook is to be credited for advertising competitive solutions (including Google's) as replacements for Maps v1.

3. Apologize

The letter is a nice example of a legitimate apology. If you don't think that's difficult, check out former US Press Secretary Ron Ziegler's attempt.

4/5/6. Reflect, decide what you'll do differently in the future and share that knowledge

It's too early for these steps to be taken yet, but I would hope that Apple learns as much as they can from this episode and puts it to use. There's a lot we don't know, including whether Apple was essentially forced to rush out its own Maps because of actions by Google to withhold access to its own app, or to starve the iPhone app of features to favor its own Android platform. I can tell you from experience that ending significant partnerships often creates havoc with products and customers.

At any rate, you'd expect a company like Apple to mine this big time - possibly to redouble their efforts to control their own destiny with key iPhone features.

What do you think Apple should learn from the Maps mistake?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Taking too long to get rid of the "Brilliant Jerk"

This is an amazing story from Cliff Oxford in the New York Times You're The Boss blog.

I had a brilliant start-up talent when I was building my company, STI Knowledge, into a global brand. When we hired him, we hired over our heads. He had juice. We marveled at his manic performance, which often propelled all of us. When we had a crisis, he could solve it. Yes, he could have taken bigger jobs at bigger salaries but he chose to work with rebels. He knew we were right in our vision and mission, and he knew we could not do it without him. But in trying to maintain his glory, he struggled to let us go and grow.

The growth phase required the addition of staff members, systems and structure that changed the dynamics of the company. While the brilliant talent was a high-tech genius, the new stars were being made in areas like sales, marketing and education. He felt left out. He was no longer needed in every meeting. He could not simply pop into the chief executive’s office four or five times a day like old times, and the new processes and systems hindered and even prevented him from being the savior. Right before our eyes, the brilliant talent became the Brilliant Jerk.

I have listened to Brilliant Jerks proclaim, “I am the one who is always on call, who drives the most revenue, who is here on weekends and who has the knowledge.” And the Brilliant Jerk speaks the truth. But I have also seen him stick his head in the door and deflate an entire management team. A growth company needs enablers, not disablers....

So what’s the right answer? Get rid of the Brilliant Jerk as fast as you possibly can.

The biggest waste of time in a high-growth company is the period that falls between when you know someone does not fit the growth culture and the time you terminate the relationship. On average, I’d say the Brilliant Jerk hangs around for 1.5 years; decisive action can limit the period to less than six months. The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Roger Ailes have had no problem showing Brilliant Jerks the door, and all built world-class brands faster and better than the rest of us. I wish I could tell you I was as tough as those guys. I learned the hard way by not taking action when I should have.

I can tell you from personal experience that coddling the Brilliant Jerk — letting him work from home, consoling him, giving him special assignments — does not work. It just kicks the can down the road. At my company, I was worried about the impact his firing would have on other employees who had shown him respect. To my surprise, the reaction was, “What took you so long?”

One of the worst feelings I have ever experienced was looking at the Brilliant Jerk and saying, “We have a vision, and I have decided you are no longer a match for where we need to go.” One of the best feelings came the next day when everyone was moving forward together.

I have had the weird experience of feeling terrible about firing an employee, then having the other employees telling me the next day, "What took you so long?" A further regret is that this employee wasn't even brilliant!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Don't dwell on your mistakes; make the most of your second chances

We fear mistakes because it seems to us that failure is a life sentence - a single failure creates insurmountable limits, in our mind. If you're more than 30 years old, a simple look back should assure you that this is not the case. You've failed a few times, or more than that, and have been able to bounce back. Yet this fear persists.

We forget that for 99% of mistakes you can make, there are second chances. We are allowed to try again - perhaps at the same task, perhaps a different one. But we don't only have one shot at succeeding; we have many.

In another of Adam Bryant's great NY Times "Corner Office" interviews, Mark Templeton, CEO of Citrix, discusses his second chance - regaining the CEO job after having lost it once:

There was a time, a small gap, when I lost the C.E.O job. In the June quarter of 2000, we really missed our expectations, and by then I'd been C.E.O. for six quarters and I was learning a lot, especially about working with the board. I had not kept the board informed about what was going on and some of the struggles we were having, and I was trying to carry all of it myself, which is what green leaders do. After we missed our expectations hugely, the board decided we would do a public search for a replacement, and I was demoted to president and senior executive officer. I deserved that because that's part of the game, being held accountable.

So we did a public search for a replacement and we had a candidate, but the board decided they didn't like him. That was about six months in. Then we had a second one, but the board decided that I was actually a viable candidate again. They asked me if I'd be interested in having my title back. It took me about a microsecond to say yes.

Q. So you were able to hit the reset button on the C.E.O. job, but with lessons learned.

A. And what a set of lessons to learn. No. 1: Remember you're a member of the team, and teams can take on big problems. You don't have to carry them yourself. In fact, as C.E.O. you have two teams, your board and management. And No. 2: Communication with the board is really critical to your success because that's how you can get the kind of advice you need to lead a company through hard times.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A big mistake in "6 Common Mistakes in Managing Requirements"

I got a very tempting offer in my email this morning. No, a Nigerian prince did not need me to hold onto a few of his millions in my bank account. Instead, it was an offer to download a paper called "6 Common Mistakes in Managing Requirements" from Accompa, a group that makes software for tech product management.

Now, how could I resist such an offer? So I registered and downloaded the paper. And [spoiler alert] here are the mistakes:

Mistake #1: Requirements Are Locked Up in Silos

Mistake #2: Requirements Are Lost

Mistake #3: Requirements Are Prioritized Using Ad-hoc Approaches

Mistake #4: Requirements Are Not Verified

Mistake #5: Requirements Are Incomplete

Mistake #6: No Easy Way to Know the Latest Status of Requirements

It will not surprise you to know the solution to all these mistakes is Accompa's software. But I'm not here to take issue with that; for all I know, the software can help a product manager avoid all these issues.

I've got a bone to pick, though, with the wording of these "mistakes." Note that the first five use the passive voice. The passive voice is a vehicle to distance the true subject of a sentence from the action.

"Requirements Are Prioritized Using Ad-hoc Approaches." Who did the prioritizing? Reading this, you would think it doesn't matter. But if you've read through the information on this site, you will know that in avoiding mistakes, accountability is everything. And the passive voice is not allowed. In none of the stories here will anyone say, "Mistakes were made."

So, to the above mistake - the bigger mistake is likely that there is an organizational structure where accountability for prioritization is diffuse or unclear. In that case, ad-hocracy will rule the day.

If you really want to avoid mistakes, you can't approach them sideways, with the passive voice. You need to deal with them head on.

Don't make the mistake "6 Common Mistakes" did. Be accountable. You don't even need software for that.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Affordable loss" concept helps reduce the cost of failure

Affordable loss is a concept defined by Prof. Saras Sarasvathy of the University of Virginia's Darden School. The website provides a very concise definition of the concept:

Affordable loss involves decision makers estimating what they might be able to put at risk and determining what they are willing to lose in order to follow a course of action. Using the entrepreneur’s new venture plunge decision, this article combines insights from behavioral economics to develop a detailed analysis of the affordable loss heuristic. Specifically, we develop propositions to explain how individuals: (1) decide what they can afford to lose; and (2) what they are willing to lose in order to plunge into entrepreneurship.

This video from Professor Stuart Read of the IMD business school elaborates on the idea of affordable loss. Rather than sketch out a long-term vision and quantify potential, competitive strategy and define target customers, launching with affordable loss is done by defining a crucial first step (or steps) and deciding to invest a fixed amount (money and time) in it. If that step achieves its goal, it would justify more investment and the next step can be taken.

Affordable loss helps an entrepreneur know when something is not working and gives a signal that an effort should be stopped or redirected before too much money and time is spent. It's also discussed in two recent business books, Peter Sims' "Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries," and "Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future," by Leonard Schlesinger et al.

Here's a quote from an entrepreneur who is interviewed in the video, Kevin DeWhitt, founder of Agilyx, a maker of alternative fuels:

The primary key was a wife who understood me. And when I came to her and said, "Honey, I think in a year's time if I develop a model and a story, I think I can get this project funded, and from there we can move on our way." In reality it took 2 years, and that was 2 years of a scientist not generating any income. There were 5 kids in the house, and a wife that was supporting everybody, that's a little hard. That vision, though, that she and I had together and she allowed me to pursue was really key in getting it launched.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Craziest deliberate mistake ever? "The Year of Yes"

I've been fascinated by deliberate mistakes every since reading the HBR article "The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes," by Paul Schoemaker and Robert Gunther, years ago. This fascination was reawakened by Schoemaker's marvelous book "Brilliant Mistakes" (my favorite book of last year).

Examples of deliberate mistakes are hard to find. Which means they are an important untapped resource of learning. As part of writing my Mistake Bank book, I went back to Schoemaker's book for more examples. And rediscovered the story of Maria Headley. This is from the website for her book "The Year of Yes."
THE YEAR OF YES (Hyperion) is a memoir of the year that writer Maria Dahvana Headley put fate in charge of her love life. Weary of the kind of guys she seemed to always date, (sample line: "I'm listening to NPR...Do you want to come over and make out?") she decided to stop being so picky, and start going out with everyone who asked her. Yeah, everyone. Surely some of them would be different. They were.

Over the next 12 months, Maria ended up dating most of NYC: a homeless guy who thought he was Jimi Hendrix, a subway conductor, a mommy-obsessed millionaire, a guy who wanted her to bite his…well, you can guess, a woman who asked herto have her baby, an ice cream man who gave her a free cone – no euphemism here, he really did, a 70-year-old salsa dancer, a Playwright, a 30-year-old virgin,a Colombian Cowboy/Handyman, a Player King, a matched set of Princelings, a reincarnated dachshund owned by her mother in the early 70’s, and more. Many, many more. She fell apart. She fell over. She fell into a few beds. She fell out of a few beds. And most importantly, she fell in love. Twice.

This is a deliberate mistake, for sure, or a series of them. She went out with many of these men (and women) in spite of her instinct against it. It seems crazy, yet there's a powerful logic behind the approach. Schoemaker writes this:

By permitting many mistakes in dating, Headley was able to learn faster about what she truly wanted in a partner. She then found her special partner more quickly. Headley's epiphany was that our typical way of experimenting - developing a preconceived idea of Mr. or Ms. Right and finding someone to fit the part - does not always lead to the best decisions. Making more mistakes, as Headley did in her year of saying yes, can speed the process of learning.

What do you think? Insanity, or genius?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"30th Anniversary of E-mail" mistake persists

Word went around the internet last week that 30 August 2012 was the 30th anniversary of e-mail, without doubt one of the most significant inventions of the past 50 years.

The anniversary was meaningless, of course. The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the copyrighting of a system called EMAIL (which did support electronic mail), developed for a small New Jersey college. The owner of the copyright is V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who was a teenager in 1982 when he developed this system.

David Pogue, the New York Times tech columnist, was one of the many who jumped on the bandwagon (via a tweet, of course, the easiest way to jump on a story without fully checking it out). Yet, when confronted with the error by readers, he wrote a lengthy apology of the whole EMAIL issue, including a detailed explanation from a reader, Thomas Heigh. A bit of Heigh's email to Pogue:

A colleague sent me a copy of your tweet, “Happy birthday to EMAIL! 30 years old today!” I’m afraid that you’ve inadvertently endorsed the propaganda campaign of V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who has been mounting a vigorous but quixotic effort to convince the world that he invented email as a schoolboy between 1978 and 1982. He mounts his case at However, his claims have been almost universally rejected by technology experts and historians, on the simple basis that you can’t invent something during (or after) 1978 that was already in widespread use by that time.

The roots of email stretch back more than 40 years, including to a DARPA RFC (specification) covering a "mail box protocol" in 1971. (The source for this is a powerful apology from Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton published in March, 2012, after he and a reporter had similarly reported Ayyadurai's copyright as the "invention" of e-mail.

It shows how a determined self-promoter can, through sheer effort and chutzpah, convince top-line journalists of something that is demonstrably not true; not once, but over and over again.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In competitive sailing, fix error first, then discuss

Some good advice from Union Square Ventures' Albert Wenger, garnered from his experience in the 2012 Vineyard sailboat race. This is among six valuable lessons he learned:

Recover quickly from errors. When something goes wrong on a boat, there is no time to go sulking. Instead the problem needs to be fixed or it will generally get much worse. There is time to discuss what went wrong and how to avoid it once the problem has been fixed. Put differently, a moment of crisis is not a good time for the team to start questioning each other. That too is a good way to operate as a team at work.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mario Batali: learning the importance of a job done completely

From an interview of chef Mario Batali in Adam Bryant's Corner Office column:

My dad was a heat treatment engineer for Boeing, and there was a process and a directive that you needed to repeat every day. His job was to go in and find out if there were any flaws in surface metal. His understanding of the necessity of that kind of careful process was a big part of us growing up.

I'll never forget the time I was over at a friend's house and he'd call and say, "Mario, come home." I said, "Why, Dad? Is everything all right?" "Yeah, come home," he said. So I would come home, and in the drain there were still chunks of stuff. It had been my turn to do the dishes, and the dishes were done. The kitchen was clean, but the job had yet to be completely finished. And I said, "That's ridiculous." But understanding the importance of a job being completely done stuck in my mind.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A reminder that failures can really hurt

Over at the HBR Blog Network, Dan Pallotta has published an anguished story about the failure of his business 10 years ago. The tone of regret, sadness and bitterness illustrates why failures can be so devastating. Even the lessons learned (example: "I have a less sophomoric approach to trust. Don't offer it freely, unless you're prepared for the consequences") reflect a deep and lingering pain.

Living with The Mistake Bank for five years now has taught me that letting go of anger and bitterness can greatly help to learn from failures and move forward positively. However, it's good to have a reminder that failures leave a deep imprint, and are difficult to separate from personal feelings of injury and injustice, even 10 years on.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Zakaria plagiarism time-management lesson: "Other things will have to go away"

From a New York Times report on the plagiarism charges against Time & CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria ("A Media Personality, Suffering a Blow to His Image, Ponders a Lesson"):

Mr. Zakaria’s career suffered an abrupt setback recently after bloggers discovered that his column of Aug. 20 for Time magazine had passages lifted almost entirely from an article by the historian Jill Lepore that appeared in The New Yorker in April.

Mr. Zakaria quickly apologized. But within minutes, Time had suspended him for a month and CNN, which had posted parts of the column on its Web site, removed the article and suspended him until further notice. Both began investigations of his work, as did The Post.

On Thursday afternoon, Time and CNN said they had completed their reviews, found no evidence of plagiarism and restored Mr. Zakaria to his demanding schedule. Just as quickly as his employers had questioned his credibility, they rallied around him....

In an interview on Friday in his CNN office, Mr. Zakaria again apologized for what he had called “a terrible mistake.”

“This week has been very important because it has made me realize what is at the core of what I want to do,” Mr. Zakaria said. He said he wanted to “help people to think about this fast-moving world and do this through my work on TV and writing.”

He added: “Other things will have to go away. There’s got to be some stripping down.”

There's a section in the Mistake Bank book (currently in development) about the tendency of time pressure to create mistakes. The temptation for Zakaria to "make hay while the sun shines" needs to be measured against the cost of a significant mistake such as this one.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How people react to robot mistakes

From "Us & Them," in National Geographic's August 2011 issue, about a new breed of service robots. Interesting how adding some social skills allows us to feel more comfortable, even forgiving, with robots:

Humans can draw on a vast unconscious vocabulary of movements—we know how to politely move around someone in our path, how to sense when we're invading someone's personal space. Studies at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere have shown that people expect social robots to follow the same rules. We get uncomfortable when they don't or when they make stupid mistakes. Snackbot, another mobile robot under development at Carnegie Mellon, takes orders and delivers snacks to people at the School of Computer Science. Sometimes it annoyingly brings the wrong snack or gives the wrong change. People are more forgiving if the robot warns them first that it might make errors or apologizes when it screws up.

More on Carnegie Mellon's robot project, HERB, can be found here. HERB is pictured above.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Nothing is a mistake"

Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail. There's only make.

#6 in "Some Rules for Students & Teachers," from Sister Corita Kent, via @brainpicker.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It takes two to tango, also for feedback

There are lots of ways to learn from mistakes - through a precipitating event, through finding patterns, through unpacking a failure. One of the quickest and cheapest ways to learn from mistakes is to get and use the feedback of colleagues, customers and friends.

Yet, it's a tool that's rarely used. Why? There are two reasons.

One is that people don't like to give feedback. It's personally risky: You don't know if it will be welcomed. You don't know if it will be understood, and you don't know if it will be used. Plus, it's extra work. Today, I was at a grocery store near the lake house where we're vacationing. I had to maneuver the cart through 8 or 10 product displays that narrowed the aisles to the point where they were barely wider than the shopping cart. I thought that the manager should know that the store was hard to get through, and that this was an annoyance to customers. But did I seek her out and tell her? No.

With people you know and will see again, giving feedback can be explosive - and can backfire. People can view negative feedback as a judgment on their performance (sometimes it is), or as a distraction ("I know what I'm doing!" which is something I say on occasion to people helping me - sorry Maura!). The motives of the feedback-giver can be questioned ("is that person out to get me?").

So giving feedback is not only extra work, it's thankless and even dangerous work. And why is that? Because of reason number two:

People don't like to receive feedback. Negative feedback, if we're not ready for it, attacks what we like to keep hidden. It challenges our vision of ourselves. It's like listening to a tape recording of our own speech ("Is that what I really sound like?").

But think of this: if you can get feedback on an idea, a project, or your management style, you have valuable information you can put to use. For free!

And if you get feedback from a diverse group of people, it will be easier to recognize things that require fixes (as compared to trivial issues or matters of perspective).

Compare that to the cost of failure, or the cost of making the same mistakes over again till you realize it yourself.

If you want more feedback, you have to make yourself open to it, solicit it, appreciate it, and put it to use when you get it. That will give the signal to others that giving you feedback is safe and effective. Then, like magic, you will get more.

Another personal story: a few years ago, I was struggling to manage a new group that had been assigned to me. I sensed that I wasn't connecting with them. At the end of the year, when I was already doing my own self-assessment, I asked the group to individually think about my own performance and come up with one or two recommendations that would help me improve. I promised to listen to the recommendations and not argue about them.

I met with each team member individually, and they "laid it on me." It couldn't have been easy for them. And it wasn't easy for me. It was quite difficult to listen to all that feedback.

But I learned two things I was doing which really bugged my team members.* And they were easy to fix. I was so happy with the outcome of this exercise, and I believe it helped my team and me become a stronger workgroup. I remember the whole process vividly, nearly 10 years later.

I can also say that I haven't done it since then, even though I realize that it was valuable.

In conclusion: Inviting and using feedback is difficult. But it's very useful. Try it, and try it again. Make it a habit. It will pay off hugely for you.

* Here are the two things I learned from my team's feedback:

1. "You often curse in the office and that makes us uncomfortable" - that really bothered several people on the team. I worked on that; it was easier than I thought it'd be.

2. "When I come into your office for a meeting, you don't pay complete attention to me." - this was true; it was easy to get distracted by the Blackberry or email. So I started moving away from my computer and putting my phone aside when I had a meeting.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Learning leadership is "not all about you"

This story is from Laurel Richie, president of the WNBA, as told to Adam Bryant of the New York Times:

I had just been made a vice president at Ogilvy & Mather and I was running an account that was incredibly successful. I went on vacation thinking I deserved a break. I came back and my entire team had gone to H.R. and said: "We can't do it anymore. It's a great account, but we don't like working for Laurel because working for her it feels like it's all about her and not about us. So we want to work on another piece of business."

Q. Welcome back from vacation.

A. Exactly. I remember feeling shocked, and defensive at first. But then I really stepped back and listened to what they were saying. I really thought I was a terrific leader because if you looked at all the metrics, we were successful. But I learned very profoundly in that moment that if there is not shared ownership of the work, both our successes and our failures, people aren't going to have a satisfying experience.

Q. So what did you do?

A. I redefined my job as a leader to create an environment where good things happen, and where people feel good about their role on the team, and they feel acknowledged, they feel empowered, and they feel visible. I thought that in many ways I was protecting them from bad things, and they were saying, in effect: "No, actually we want to see those bad things. We won't grow unless we experience them."I went back to the team, and we all went in a room and I said: "I got the feedback. Thank you for doing that. I had no idea. Can I have another chance and can we work together on this?" And we all came together.

I learned this lesson as well. In my first vice-president role, I was worried about delivering results to my superiors, and so focused on that first, second and third. Only later did I realize the cost of that on my team. Eventually, they told me.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Web site offers scientists access to lessons from failed experiments

The New York Times Bits blog profiled the website ResearchGate, which gathers lessons from failed scientific experiments and makes them available to other researchers:

“Science is very inefficient,” says Ijad Madisch, founder of a Web site called ResearchGate. “You try an experiment, fail, try again, fail, try again, it works. And what works is what you publish. All the data about failure is wasted.”

Begun in 2008, ResearchGate claims to have 11,000 research and educational institutions among its users. It aims to be a place where people can share what they learned in the failed experiments. Some of this is documented, but a great deal more takes place across chat rooms where scientists informally exchange information.

The ResearchGate site also includes a user post asking for a database of data from failed experiments, a proposal I've seen before (but can't recall where). It's a great idea:

I think developing a database for the storage of failed experiments makes sense for experiments that lost the chance to be shown in published articles. Everyone could upload their experimental results which they find unsatisfactory, including the experiment method, experiment data, and the experiment purpose.

This experimental data can give a good experience and lessons to the researchers who want to perform similar experiments. They can improve their experiment based on the failing example. Someone might also give a different opinion for the unreasonable experimental data, and then test their idea. Maybe a novel theory can be developed from these failed experiments. Or, like the Post It, the unsuccessful experiment data could be used to solve other problems.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On holiday the next 2 weeks...and a book is in the works

Hi, all,

Posting will be spotty the next 2 weeks as I'll be on holiday.

And... I'll be working on the Mistake Bank book. Chapter 1 is done and I'm paging thru the archives and pulling stories/ideas for Chapter 2. Here's a rough chapter outline if you're intrigued:

Chapter 1, Bouncing Back
Chapter 2, How to Learn, Really Learn, from Mistakes
Chapter 3, Creating the Mistake-Tolerant Culture
Chapter 4, Managing the Consequences
Chapter 5, Mistakes Take You to New Places
Chapter 6, The Lessons of Time

I like the way it's going so far and we're working on some ideas to make it look unlike any business-oriented book you've ever read before. Stay tuned!

If you've found a particular story here that resonates with you more than others, let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Elizabeth Sosnow: What I Learned From Getting Fired

This story is from Elizabeth Sosnow, Managing Director of BlissPR, and was first published in the BlissPR blog.

In this story, she recounts early lessons from getting fired from a summer job, and picking up a new one. [Elizabeth's dad is John Bliss, who has contributed several stories to this site.] Thanks to Elizabeth for allowing us to reprint it here.

What I Learned from Getting Fired…or, How to Start Becoming a Boss

I was fired once.

I was seventeen years old, working for a gift store in my home town. My job was to be a “jack of all trades,” from running errands to wrapping gifts to encouraging customers to make a purchase. I was speedy at errands, terrible at gift wrapping and mediocre at sales.

Meanwhile, my employer was running out of money, dodging creditors and avoiding invoices. My job began to include answering angry calls while she hid. Looking back, I can see that my boss had no time to be kind to a teenager…her professional life was falling apart.

My one bright spot that summer? My daily walk to buy a sandwich at the deli across the street. The owners were unfailingly kind to me, with a friendly hello or a warm word.

The busiest day of the summer arrived – the annual “sidewalk sale” where retailers unloaded their old inventory for low prices. My boss had me running for 12 hours straight. My high point was selling a pair of very expensive cubic zirconia earrings during the rush – my biggest sale ever.

But when the hordes cleared, she pulled me into her office and fired me on the spot. I was devastated.

After taking the weekend to lick my wounds, I realized I wanted to say goodbye to the deli owners. Somehow, they had become my friends. I just couldn’t disappear without a word, even though I was ashamed to tell them what had happened. I knew I wasn’t blameless – there are always two people involved.

I walked in to the deli, admitted what had happened…and they offered me a job on the spot. Not only that, it was at a higher salary for a shorter work day. They told me they’d always liked me, and they knew I wouldn’t let them down. I was stunned.
I worked at the deli for two summers and loved every minute. Honestly, I probably did let them down sometimes, but I’m also pretty sure they didn’t regret the job offer.
They taught me a little lesson on how to be a good employer virtually every day, including:

Set Fair Boundaries – and Stick to Them: How about the week that I strolled in 15 minutes late for four days in a row? They simply smiled and docked my pay for an hour. I was never late again.

Pay Attention to Individual Needs: The deli wasn’t always a hot bed of creativity. It was my job to draw up the “daily sandwich specials” sheet. Every day, I got more elaborate with it — more doodles, more colors, etc. They weren’t annoyed. Instead, they were patient…and only drew the line when my masterpieces started to consume more than 20 minutes of time.

You Need to Understand Who an Employee “Is,” While They Figure Out “Who They will Be:” One young male customer became increasingly interested in me. After one date, I knew he wasn’t for me. But he kept coming into the deli and I didn’t know how to handle the aggressive attention. Instead of being irritated with me, they let me hide in the back of the store one day, even though it left them short-handed up front. Maturity takes time, and people don’t “grow up” all at once, even in a terrific work environment.

Helped Me Begin to Understand Responsibility for Others: The deli had a number of refrigerated cases to hold all of the cold cuts, cheese and salads. During my second summer, I was promoted to “Manager” of the other summer employees. One of my responsibilities was to make sure that all of the doors to the cases stayed firmly shut, so the cold air stayed inside and the food stayed fresh. Well…the doors were sticky and didn’t slide shut easily. After warning me to keep an eye on it several times, my boss calmly started docking me (and only me) a quarter every time he found the door open. Simply put, I earned a higher wage than the others and therefore more was expected of me. End of story.

Now that I’m a boss myself, I try to remember the lessons that all three of those folks taught me that summer. Perhaps, in the end, it boils down to each of us understanding that the employer-employee relationship is a very much a two-way street.

What about you? What have you learned from a boss or an employee in the past? What kind of advice would you offer to a seventeen year old just starting out in the workforce?