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How to Turn Failure into an Asset


Tara Carcillo

Date Published

Jun 01, 2018
4 minute read

My father has often reminded me that I, “cannot change the past, so just move on.” In principle, I agree… and yet, the past can have a real grip on me, and on the leaders I have the privilege of working with across the country. This is visible when team members feel compelled to recount mistakes made in the past and the impact of those mistakes on an organization, client, or community.

These experiences and memories are valid and real, but they can also obstruct a group’s ability to move forward. In keeping with my father’s wisdom, you can’t change the past–but on the other hand, I’ve found it’s important to respect collective previous experiences while still keeping a focus on the ultimate goal at hand.

I recently sat with a group who were in the earliest stages of moving forward with a large system implementation that would impact their core business strategy and how they deliver value to their clients and customers. They were simultaneously ready to move forward with the change and acknowledged its importance, but could not stop referring back to the last time they did a similar project.

A technique that works to unlock the past’s grip on an individual or a group involves not shutting down discussion about how teams have experienced failures in the past or unmet expectations, but to instead, place those fails in the center of the dialogue. Thought leader David Gray refers to this concept as a “pre-mortem”.

Ask the group: “What would it take to really screw this up?”

Invite participants to generate a no-holds-barred list of specific behaviors, actions, and decisions required to negatively impact the project or initiative at hand. These ideas can be generated by sitting staunchly in the past and talking about all the things done wrong before. They can be pulled from the underbelly or shadow side of an organization’s culture. They can highlight the perceived weaknesses of flat sides of the leadership team charged with designing and executing a large project–or all of the above.

The generation of this list will result in the surfacing of ghosts, secrets, and ideas that may feel unspeakable. If left unshared, these ideas will carry a negative charge into future discussions and key moments when the group will need its full leadership power to solve the inevitable problems that arise in organization-wide changes.

So, it’s important to first explicitly and openly name both these realities in addition to the collective perceptions of the group. From there, the data available in this list can be grouped into the likelihood of repeating, ability to control, and the significance of impact, among other categories.

Suddenly, the collective group has the space to bring history and past experience into the present, in a way that enables them to close the gap between their current state and the future they desire. It may seem counterintuitive, but you might be surprised at how openly discussing your fears of failure can band your team together to accomplish their goals. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.