Creating success vs avoiding failure

I am a huge believer that businesses need to strive to create successes rather than avoid failures. There are certainly some areas where failure avoidance is necessary: Boeing needs to do an outstanding job of shipping planes that don’t have safety flaws, for example. But the successes are what drives a business forward: creating the jumbo-jet or winning a big order from a big airline, for example.

One key challenge in building a success-seeking culture is that failure is so much more visible than the absence of success. When a team goes hard after a deal and loses it, everyone sees it and is disappointed. Depending on the culture, there might be a productive post-mortem (good) or a witch hunt (not so good). But when the team doesn’t make the extra call that creates that opportunity, nobody notices. On the engineering side, the revolutionary new feature that misses the release is a visible failure; the absence of the revolutionary new feature ever being invented is a non-event.

One would hope the visibility of success could be a balancing factor, but there are two problems: spectacular success is rare, and a few extra routine successes are hard to notice. What’s the incentive for an employee to risk (non-catastrophic) failure to deliver a few more routine successes? In most companies, none. The developer who tries to get 7 features into the release and only gets 5 in is a goat for missing 2 committed features, while the developer who tries for 3 and gets them all is a hero. In sales, the team that doggedly pursues every qualified opportunity they see is heroic, whereas the team that prioritizes the best deals and trades off some pursuit of less likely deals for more new prospecting may have more “losses” but close more deals.

How do you manage failure to create a success-seeking culture? Don’t ignore it, failure has far too much to teach us. Instead,

  • Clearly distinguish catastrophic failure (building an unsafe airplane) from routine failure (running a marketing promotion that didn’t have the desired effect). Drive that distinction throughout the organization; obsess about avoiding catastrophic failure and accept routine failure.
  • Makes sure post-mortems are done respectfully and productively, with a focus on learning and a lack of blame. Share the results – even when the failure occurred at the the most senior level. There’s nothing like leading by example.
Of course a big part of building a culture that seeks success is celebrating successes. But don’t just celebrate the outcome, celebrate the journey that got the team there. I believe that most worthwhile successes don’t come easily, and many of them come within a whisker of failure at multiple points. You need to show the team how fine that line is and what others in the company have done to keep critical successes on the correct side of that line. Let them see the risk taking and the will that it took to create the success you are celebrating.
A boss once told me that I would never last at a big industrial company, I wasn’t good enough at managing expectations down. I agree, but I hope my focus on the results we want to create will help make 10gen a company that seeks successes.
— Max

2 comments so far

  1. Cliff Elam on

    “A boss once told me that I would never last at a big industrial company…” And yet you were very successful.

    I wish someone had told me that!


    • Max Schireson on

      While I worked at a large company for a good portion of my career (Oracle), the culture there at the time and the bosses I had were very different from the culture at GE or Boeing. My first VP at Oracle was Marc Benioff – certainly not your typical big company manager.

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