How to Crash and Burn … and Fly Again

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Depending on how you react to it, failure can be a crucial component of success.

It’s a rare person indeed who has not crashed and burned at some point in their career. It could take the form of a horrendous job role that made you leave weeks later. Or it might be a project you were intrinsically tied to that failed spectacularly. Whatever it is, failure is part of the tapestry of most people’s careers at some point in their lives. Indeed, many great innovators recognize it as an essential component of eventual success. Yet most people have a very unhappy relationship with failure.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Henry Ford’s advice is calm, collected … and hard to heed. There are good reasons why. Failure distorts a person’s perception of their own abilities and how attainable their goal is. As if that double whammy were not enough, failure induces feelings of helplessness. A big fail can create a persistent fear of failure, and whether it is a mild aversion or a full-blown fear, this can lead to self-sabotaging.

It is not just that we need to work on accepting failure – big and small – as part of a bigger journey. Much more importantly, we need to figure out strategies to get back on our feet after a big professional crash.

There’s such a thing as worthy failure.

One place to start is to rethink the term “failure.” I like Bill Gates’ edict: “Reward worthy failure – experimentation.” If we can appreciate that it is OK, even necessary, to fail, why is it so hard? To answer that, we need to look both at our professional surroundings and within ourselves.

Firstly, organizations – their reward structures, their hierarchies, their reporting – often do a bad job of recognizing the upsides of failure. Innovation, creative thinking and bravery are all associated with the process of experimentation, yet professional recognition is mostly tied to results and outcomes.  

Secondly, it is meant to be hard. If you’ve just experienced a major crash-and-burn, yes, you need to try to get over it, but you also need to marinate in it, feel the pain and, crucially, learn from it. To miss this step truly makes the experience a failure.

Failure is not fatal.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” I believe this should be a mantra for everyone. Most failures are fixable. That said, there are ways of managing your exposure if your big plan does not work out. “Safe” experimentation has a lot going for it compared to a very public crash-and-burn. You can create your own safe space. The safest way is not to go public until you are certain your idea is a good one. Another way might be to pick a low-profile project to try out a new theory.

Spot errors early … and fix them.

According to economist Tim Harford, there are negative ways to react to failure, often linked to denial. There are, however, good ways of reacting, such as early recognition of your mistake: The earlier you spot a problem, the earlier you can fix it and the simpler the fix will be. That will sound very familiar to anyone from my industry or involved in digital transformation. As any software developer will tell you, when you spot defects early, it is a lot easier to fix them and move on.  

Better late than a disaster.

Slow down. Email overload is the reality we live with, but so are its consequences. When you do not read things properly and when you send emails in haste, you take risks. When you are so eager to check things off your list, to move to the next item or to be a hero fast, you take risks. At stake are your reputation and the success of the project.

If my 15-plus years in marketing have taught me anything, it’s to limit your emails. It is better to deliver a cogent, considered response a little later than to fire off an email in a hurry. Not only are you likely to avert potential disasters, but you also enhance your professional reputation as the kind of person who adds value to interactions.

Learn from failures.

There’s an old saying in betting, “throwing good money after bad.” In gambling terms, it means people start placing bigger, riskier bets than they normally would to try to make up the deficit of a previous loss. It applies more broadly too. When you don’t learn from your mistakes, you continue to apply skewed judgment to new situations.

Of course, there are situations where a crash-and-burn is not entirely of your own making. Sometimes there are ongoing issues that are out of your control. Perhaps the scope of the task is stacked against you. My advice would be to seek advice early. Talk to managers or mentors about how to resolve the issue, preferably before it becomes a full-blown disaster. It shows a mature appreciation of the potential risks, which serves to enhance, not deplete, your professional capital.

Recognize where you will thrive.

It has become so commonplace for companies to call themselves “innovative.” How organizations actually deal with disruption or the prospect of failure is a better indicator of how innovative they are. However, there are people who usually know before the rest of us do if a company fosters a truly innovative culture … and that is the employees themselves.

Failure? A big crash-and-burn? You made a mistake? If you ask me, these are par for the course. There is a caveat, however. If a pattern emerges where the same mistakes are made over and over again, that is when I worry about that individual. The real failure is not the mistake, but when a person fails to learn.

Leila Modarres

Leila Modarres is responsible for Infostretch’s global brand, go-to-market and communications. She has more than 15 years in strategic marketing roles and a stellar track record establishing brands in high-growth markets. Most recently, she headed marketing at Cumulus Networks, where she helped launch the company and define its position in the emerging software-defined networking market. Previously, Leila was VP Marketing at DeviceAnywhere, a pioneer in mobile application development and testing. There she helped establish DeviceAnywhere’s category leadership and subsequent acquisition by Keynote Systems. Additionally, Leila held key roles at emerging technology companies Virtual Iron (acquired by Oracle) and PanGo Networks (acquired by InnerWireless). Early in her career, she was at Porter-Novelli (Omnicom) providing PR services for EMC and Nuance; and at Harvard Business Review. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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