Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 2;   January 14, 2015: Avoid Having to Reframe Failure

Avoid Having to Reframe Failure

by

Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?
Panama Canal construction

Construction on the Third Set of Locks Project of the Panama Canal. The new locks, due to begin operation in 2016, will allow for ships approximately 50% wider to pass through the canal. The existing canal and locks began operating in 1914. They were constructed by the United States, following the failure of a French effort that began in 1881. The French had attempted to build a sea-level canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The U.S. approach was to construct an artificial lake 85 feet above sea level, with locks at both ends connecting it to the two oceans. Although the U.S. project used a much different approach and design, it did employ, repair, and upgrade some of the infrastructure created by the French. And, of course, the U.S. effort benefitted from the knowledge that the French sea-level design proved too difficult. Photo courtesy U.S. Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects.

Asked about his repeated failure to devise an electric light, Thomas Edison supposedly said something like this: "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work." There are disputes about the exact phrasing he used, but the gist of his message is clear: there is some value in failure.

Although his claim is valid, Edison certainly didn't set out to find those 10,000 ways that don't work. That's why his comment is somewhat humorous.

It's an example of reframing — the process of altering how we view concepts, situations, conditions, or events, usually by changing how we view the importance of contextual elements. In the example above, Edison emphasizes the often-ignored value of knowing which candidate solutions don't work.

Although reframing is helpful when we fail, succeeding is even better. Here are three tips for avoiding the need to reframe failure.

Design the approach to yield value independent of outcome
Although all efforts have (or should have) primary objectives, we can sometimes design our efforts so that failure to achieve the primary objective inherently contributes to a different success. For example, if Approach A fails, but Approach B can use much of the knowledge or infrastructure generated by having attempted A, then the failure of A leaves us in good position for B.
Intentionally interlocking solution approaches in this manner might require attempting a less-favored approach first, but the risk management benefits of inverted order can be attractive enough to make inversion sensible.
Define multiple objectives
Defining multiple objectives from the outset creates multiple opportunities for success, even if some objectives are more important than others. For example, in a proposal effort, winning the contract is the obvious primary objective. But making the cut to the final short list might also be an achievement, if we're employing process improvements and simultaneously studying their effects on proposal efforts.
Having multiple Although reframing is
helpful when we fail,
succeeding is
even better
objectives generates value even if the primary objective isn't realized. Articulating them in advance makes reframing an undesirable primary outcome less necessary, because success in achieving the secondary objectives is so evident.
Shorten the goal horizon
Primary objectives that are achievable only after large-scale investments of resources and time tend to be less certain, because predicting outcomes of complex activities over long time scales is difficult. And with elevated levels of uncertainty come decreased probabilities of success.
By setting objectives that are achievable on shorter time scales, adjustments for unforeseen events, based on what we learn along the way, become more achievable. The learning then becomes part of the outcome, which is a success in itself. And we can apply that learning to the next set of shorter-range objectives.

All three of these tactics make available options that teams might not otherwise notice. What options have so far escaped your notice? Go to top Top  Next issue: The Limits of Status Reports: I  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenBgXzMnciHKDprktgner@ChacNoJSGmRxiOfSZpayoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Mars as seen by Hubble Space TelescopeWho Would You Take With You to Mars?
What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
Eugene F. Kranz, flight director, at his console on May 30, 1965, in the Control Room in the Mission Control Center at HoustonDesign Errors and Group Biases
Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse Summits: II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.
The deadline at Rock Island Prison during the U.S. Civil WarIrrational Deadlines
Some deadlines are so unrealistic that from the outset we know we'll never meet them. Yet we keep setting (and accepting) irrational deadlines. Why does this happen?
Rapids in a northern streamThe Risks of Too Many Projects: I
Some organizations try to run too many development projects at once. Whether developing new offerings, or working to improve the organization itself, taking on too many projects can defocus the organization and depress performance.

See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A serene mountain lakeComing January 31: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions. Available here and by RSS on January 31.
Capturing ideas in a brainstormAnd on February 7: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: II
Brainstorming sessions produce output of notoriously variable quality. Understanding what compromises quality can help elevate it. Here's Part II of a set of nine phenomena that can limit the quality of contributions to brainstorming sessions. Available here and by RSS on February 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvxyNYEcHEmOLEPzmner@ChacPcGutSqWNtSuTVDWoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.