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,
even betterobjectives 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.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
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