Everyone remembers the smash-hit Pixar film Toy Story. You know, the story of a plucky tin soldier and his battles against a mean-spirited ventriloquist dummy? Oh, that isn’t the Toy Story you are familiar with? There is a good reason for that: Pixar scrapped their original idea midway through development.
In fact, all three Toy Story films would go through multiple failed iterations before finally making it to the silver screen. Each time, an unsuccessful idea was used as a launching platform for something with a stronger concept. Since the entire franchise has grossed over $1.9 billion worldwide, one could easily interpret the decision to admit defeat and start over as healthy and beneficial overall to the creation process.
Like Pixar, your organization will encounter some intense project failures. Some may feel brutal, having consumed large chunks of time and money with little to show for it. The fact is, many times these failures enable us to get a better perspective on later project goals. We may use bits and pieces of lessons learned to create something better down the road.
So, take failure as an occasional healthy part of the business process, and learn how to overcome it in the following seven ways:
1. Realize That Failure Happens to Everyone
Walt Disney’s first animation company tanked. Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity his first year. The world of business successes is full of inspiring failures like these. Never feel alone in failure, and realize that it does not have to define you in the future.
2. Know When to Admit Defeat
If a ship is genuinely sinking, no amount of duct tape can keep it afloat. Instead of resorting to patches, recognize moments when scuttling the project can allow you to move forward more cost effectively.
You may end up salvaging the wreckage later with a different approach, or you may use the sunken ship as a model of what not to do in the future. Regardless, you should be mature enough to admit temporary defeat rather than burning up more resources in damage control.
3. Perform an Autopsy on Every Failure
In the wake of a failed project, you should always perform a post-op to find two things: positives and negatives. Positive assets can be re-used later as a resource for further projects. Positive working experiences can be learned from and offer guidelines for future workflows. Negative experiences or outcomes can serve as a template for what not to do. You will often find that making a mistake early ends up being a cheap lesson compared to if you had made it later.
When analyzing failed projects for insight, make sure that you do not rule out the possibility that the project failed because of internal weaknesses. Communication issues are a common project killer, for example, as is an unrestrained scope creep. Take these lessons, and allow them to form the blueprint of an improved workflow, communication practices or scope management system to ensure that they benefit future endeavors.
4. Practice Honesty and Accountability for Healthy Recovery
The aftermath of a failed project can sometimes be more gruesome than the failure itself. Avoid alienating top talent or over-criticizing yourself through finger pointing or punishments that result in counterproductive attitudes.
At the same time, do not let obvious mistakes go unexamined since they will only be likely to repeat in the future without due analysis.
5. Seek an Outside Perspective
Not every failure yields obvious insights, especially if we end up feeling emotional about the consequences. To heal properly and learn as much as we can, it often helps to take a step back and consider things from a new perspective.
Read books and listen to podcasts by visionaries that inspire you. Discuss your experience with a personal mentor. Invest in a reputable outside consultant who can uncover teaching moments. Go on a weekend trip to let your mind unspool. These actions can all help you pull back your mindset and see things from a clearer angle.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Vent
Too much self-pity can lead to a downward spiral, but so can bottling up emotions. Give yourself a chance to express all your excess frustration in a healthy way that does not negatively impact your team. Whether you end up ranting in a private log, get some cathartic exercise, or throw yourself a small “loosen up” party, a little self-indulgence can help benefit our mind’s natural coping process.
7. Let Failures Motivate You to Succeed
Malcolm Gladwell once said that someone is not a professional in something until they have worked at it for 10,000 hours. These hours can involve successes and failures, but they are always teaching us something. So, no matter the outcome of your project, let it motivate you to approach the next one with more confidence and control.
Put in extra preparation to reduce the impact of risks like scope creep, and hone your critical eye to scrutinize outcomes with just a bit more experience under your belt. In the end, you will be able to come to the next project with that little extra something that helps people succeed in the broad scheme, even if they stumble a bit on the way.
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