Failing to Succeed

Published On October 12, 2009 | By mbalogh | Blog, Uncategorized

Difficult and impossible are not the same thing, though they’re often treated that way.  For instance, I was called to join a meeting because the lead engineer told the user interface architect something was impossible.  It wasn’t.  It was difficult.  The difference?  The engineer did not possess the knowledge required to commit to executing it, so he avoided it by calling it impossible.  This is a person that needs to succeed so much they’re willing to pass on potentially productive change.  The reason I was asked to join the meeting is because I know the difference between difficult and impossible.

One of my favorite parts of a project is sitting at the beginning of it, just before we start.  It’s at this time when I can take a few minutes to look at what we’re going to accomplish and think about everything I will know by the end that I don’t know now.  It’s a fun little exercise I find keeps me fresh.

Ever notice that when we play chess, backgammon, tennis, or any other game we tell ourselves we get better by playing with those who are better than us but, as soon as we walk through those office doors, we have to be the best and can never be wrong?  Being wrong is fine.  In fact, I believe it should be encouraged so long as we learn from it and take corrective action.  This is how we grow.

Wikipedia was once compared to a “legitimate” encyclopedia.  Several articles were chosen at random and analyzed for accuracy, completeness, and a few other traits.  As you might have guessed, in the end, Wikipedia lost the comparison.  But here’s the catch.  By the following day Wikipedia had fixed all the flaws in the comparison articles but the printed “legitimate” encyclopedia could not be changed.  Further, Wikipedia has since grown to 271 languages with over 3 million articles in just the English version.

Sir Isaac Newton is acclaimed as one of the most influential men in history.  He is renowned as a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, theologian, and alchemist.  Did you catch that last part?  Alchemist, also known as the pursuit of transmutation, most famous for the goals of turning common metals to gold and discovering the secret to immortality.  Both very bold goals.  Obviously he failed but, along the way, he had massive success.  Newton failed many times, but he is by no means labeled a failure.

Managers, by definition, are not leaders.  This is not to say they can’t be leaders — they’re just not automatically leaders.  Managers are not paid to be leaders; they’re paid to succeed.  They are given a task and their job is to see complete it.  Leaders, on the other hand, can be anyone.  Leaders are allowed to fail and, as such, have the ability to embrace change.  Managers do not.

I love feedback.  One of my favorite things to institute is an anonymous feedback system.  Unfortunately it never seems to last very long.  It lasts just about as long as it takes someone in charge to take insult from the feedback.  Actually, that’s a pretty good run.  A lot of time anonymous feedback doesn’t make it past the presentation of the idea.  Why are people so afraid to be wrong?  Is this a manifestation of The Peter Principle?  What’s the worst that can happen?  Maybe your entire world will get turned upside-down with a new idea or revelation.  So what?  It’s a good thing if you embrace change.  Difficult, but not impossible to handle.  Further, I have some bad news for you:  putting your fingers in your ears and humming will not stop change.  Companies change.  Consumers change.  Industries change.  Sure, you can avoid it for a time, possibly years, but you cannot ignore change You can bet your competitors are not.

So what comes next?  Embrace change and empower yourself to lead.  Customers and industries change.  Understand that, accept it, and use it.  Think about what was impossible yesterday (hand-held radio, personal computer, iPhone, democratization of knowledge, open source, and the list goes on…) and wonder what is difficult today that was impossible yesterday.  Sure difficult is, well, hard, but it’s also quite possibly worth doing.

You’ll never know what you don’t know unless you attempt to figure it out.  The only thing that’s certain is change.  Change now, or change later.  Some people refuse to take risk but, the way I see it, the riskiest thing you can do is avoid change.

If you need to succeed you may pass on productive change.  If failure is an option, you can embrace it and do the impossible.

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