As a preamble to a discussion about failing consciously, I’d like to retell a story. Many years ago Xerox was beta testing a then new-type digital printer. The testers sent back complaints: it was hard to figure out how to work the damn thing, and the user guide was confusing. Obviously, User Error, the designers concluded. Yup. More stupid users. So an internal focus group was set up by senior management to test what exactly was happening.
They brought in three middle managers, put them in a room with the new printer and user guide, and from the one-way mirror watched while mayhem ensued. They watched while the managers got confused by the directions in the user guide, spent literally hours arguing amongst themselves about what the user guide meant, kept pressing the wrong buttons, and finally gave up – never getting it to work.
User Error, they again said. Obviously, went the thinking, the managers weren’t smart or savvy enough to understand simple directions. Except they didn’t know a trick had been played on them: the testers were actually PhD computer scientists. Oops. It wasn’t User Error at all. They had failed to design a machine and a user guide that had clear user interfaces. So while the printer itself might have been a marvel of machinery for its day, it couldn’t be used. It was a failure. Or was it?
WHAT IS FAILURE
I contend that until every ‘failed’ step was taken, and every ‘failed’ assumption made, there was no way to know exactly what problems needed to be fixed or if indeed their printer was a success. The failure was part of the march to success.
We call it failure when we don’t achieve a goal we’ve set out to accomplish, whether it’s starting up a company, reaching a job goal, learning something new, or starting a new diet. I think that as humans we strive to succeed, to be seen as competent, to be ‘better than’, even if we’re only in competition with ourselves. It’s natural to want our products, our teams, our families, our competitive activities, to reap success. To be The Best. And we plot and envision how to make it happen.
But the road to success isn’t straight; sometimes we face disappointment, shame, and self-judgment along the route. We get annoyed with ourselves when results don’t seem to comply with our mental images, and tell ourselves maybe we didn’t follow the original plan, or didn’t plan well enough, or maybe we’re self-sabotaging. We blame teammates or vendors, spouses or neighbors.
I’m here to tell you that failure is a necessary part of success. It’s built in to learning and succeeding, actually a natural part of the process of change and accomplishment. Before we win we gotta fail. Tiger Woods didn’t wake up the best in the world. Neither did Pavarotti or Steve Jobs. For anyone to get to the top, to achieve success in any industry, any endeavor, any sport, it’s necessary to fail over and over. How surprising that no one teaches us how to fail consciously. I suggest we develop conscious failing strategies that become built in to our success procedures.
WHAT IS OUR STATUS QUO? AND WHY IS IT SO STUBBORN?
Getting to success is a sequential process that includes trial and error – i.e. winning and losing are both part of the same process, and each adding a piece of the puzzle. Of course there’s no way to know what we don’t know before we start – no way to even be curious, or ask the right questions because we don’t know what we don’t know. And unfortunately, part of the process is internal, unconscious, and systemic.
Change – and all success and failure is really a form of changing our status quo – has a very large unconscious component, and when you only try to add new behaviors you miss the unconscious elements that will rear their ugly heads as you move toward hitting your goals: you can’t change a behavior by trying to change a behavior. It just doesn’t work that way.
Let me explain a few things about how your brain works in the area of change. To begin, all change is systemic. Anything new you want to do, anything new that requires, ultimately, new behaviors, or added beliefs or life changes, requires buy-in from what already exists in your make up – your status quo. Indeed, as the repository of your history, values, and norms, your status quo won’t change a thing without congruency. Indeed it will reject anything new, regardless of how necessary it is, unless the new has been properly vetted by the originating system.
Setting a goal that’s behavior-based without agreement from the system, without incorporating steps for buy in assures resistance. Sure, we lay out the trajectory, attempt to make one good decision at a time, and use every feeling, hope, data point, guess, to take next steps. But when we don’t take into account the way our brains unconsciously process, it may not turn out like we envision. Lucky there’s a way to manage our activities to take into account what a brain needs for congruent change and a successful outcome.
THE STEPS TO FAILING CONSCIOUSLY
In my work on how brains facilitate change and make decisions to shift what’s already there (my The How of Change program teaches how to generate new neural routes) I offer ways to create new synapses and neural pathways that lead to new behaviors. Take a look at the Change Model chart I developed, with a careful look at The Trial Loop – the steps we each take to learn, to add/trial something new:
The Trial Loop is where the brain learning occurs. It’s here we iterate through several touch points: new data acquisition, buy-in, trial behaviors, and the stop/go/stop action (double-arrowed line between Beliefs (CEN) and red Stop) as each new element is tried and considered before new behaviors are formed.
It’s important to understand that no change will occur until these elements are addressed; merely hearing something new – a directive, an interesting piece of information, an internal decision to change a behavior – doesn’t insure something different will happen. Unless our system buys in, until there’s a specific circuit created for the new, no change will occur. You can’t change a behavior by trying to change a behavior.
So as we try out new stuff, our personal mental models of rules, beliefs, norms, history, etc., go through iterations of trial, acceptance, rejection, confusion, trial, acceptance, rejection, etc. until the new is congruent with the norms of the system, something we cannot know before we go through this process. So let’s call our disappointments part of the iteration process that precedes success. Here is a closer look at my chart:
- An initial goal/idea/thought enters (through the CUE),
- then gets sorted through an acceptance/rejection process for beliefs and systems congruence (the CEN), which
- darts around the brain seeking a match for an existing neural pathway for earlier incidence of achieving this goal.
- If no existing pathway is found, a new synapse/neural pathway must be formed.
- The brain goes through an iterative process to form a new path to a new action with agreement (buy in) needed at each step (notice the iterative arrows in the chart).
- Iterative process includes: gathering data, trialing new activity, getting internal buy in, testing for Systems Congruence (All systems must be in a congruent state. Individually and personally, we’re all a system.)
- Process of Stop/New choice-data acquisition-action/Stop etc. as each new thing is tried.
- Final success when there’s congruency and new is adopted without resistance as a final Behavior. (And note: the Behavior is the FINAL activity. You cannot change a behavior by trying to change a behavior.)
Now you know the steps to conscious change. Should you want to learn more about my How of Change program let me know. Here’s a one-hour sample of me laying out the foundation of the course and explaining how change occurs in the brain.
THE STEPS TO CONSCIOUS FAILING
Now let’s plot out the steps to conscious failure to avoid large-scale malfunction.
The Beginning: to start the process toward succeeding at a goal, you need:
- Include all (all) stakeholders (including Joe in accounting) and all who will touch the final solution;
- Agree upon the wording for the final goal, including specifics of new behavioral elements, rules, politics, outcomes – i.e. what, exactly, will be different;
- Write up a ‘guess list’ of problems that might occur (failures) to the status quo as a result: what they might look like, as well as possible workarounds;
- An agreement clause from all stakeholders to act when something is going off course. Note: listening without bias is urgently needed here;
- Consider possible ways your starting goals may shift the status quo and make sure it’s tenable;
- Know how the new outcome will be maintained over time (including the people, rules, norms, changes, that will be involved) and what else has to buy in to maintenance;
- State potential, detailed steps toward achievement that are agreeable to all stakeholders;
- Agreement to reconsider all previous steps if the problems that show up cause new considerations.
The Middle: to make changes, add new knowledge to trial, get continuous buy in, you need:
- Re write the original goals, with delineated outcomes for each;
- Notice how the new is disrupting the status quo. Is it necessary to amend the new plans to ensure Systems Congruence? Is the cost of the new lower than the cost of the original? There must be a cost-effective decision made;
- Find ways to acquire the right knowledge to learn from;
- Check on the ways you’re failing. Were they expected? Do they conform to your goals? Do you need to shift anything?
- Agreement to develop new choices where current ones aren’t working as per plan.
The End: making sure the outcome is congruent with the original goal:
- Go through the Beginning steps and check they’ve been accomplished;
- Compare end result with original goal;
- Make sure there is congruent integration with the thinking, beliefs, values of the original;
- Make sure the status quo is functioning without disruption and the system ends up congruent with its mental models and belief systems.
Here are more specifics to help you integrate the necessary failure, and avoid guesswork and reactions to what might seem inconsistent with your goals:
- Lay out specifics for each step you’re considering to your goal. Include timelines, parameters, and consequences of results, specific elements of what success for that step should look like, and what possible failure might look like. Of course, you can’t truly know the answers until they occur, but make your best guess. It’s important to notice something new happening when it’s happening.
- If something unplanned or feared occurs (i.e. failure), annotate the details. What exactly is happening? What elements worked and what didn’t, and how did they work or not work – what/who was involved, how did the result differ from the expectations? What does the failure tell you – what IS succeeding instead of what you wish for? How does the remedy for the problem influence the next step? How long should you allot for each occurrence before determining whether it’s failure, or just part of the success trajectory you weren’t aware of?
- Are all stakeholders involved and shared their input? Do you need to bring in more stakeholders?
- Notice the consequences of the outcomes for each: employees, clients, hiring, firing, quitting, vendors, competition, state of the industry and your place in it. What comes into play with these factors when considering if you want to continue down one trajectory rather than designing a new one? What will it look like to decide to change course? How will your decisions effect your vision of an outcome? How are the stakeholders affected by each choice?
- How much failure are you willing to risk before you determine that either your outcome is untenable, or you need to make structural changes? What part does ego and denial play? Does everyone agree what constitutes failure? Success?
- What will you notice when your trajectory to success is negatively effecting your baseline givens? What are you willing to change, or accept, to reach your goal?
- What will it look like, specifically, when you’ve concluded your efforts? Will parts of the failure be factored in as success? Do all stakeholders buy in to the end result? If not, what remains unresolved? And how will you bring this forward?
Of course there’s no way to know before you start what any specific stage will look like. But using the steps, the thinking, above, you’ll be able to get a handle on it. And by including the failure, you’ll have a far better chance of succeeding.
For some reason, as leaders or individuals, companies or small businesses, we shame ourselves when we don’t achieve what we set out to achieve during our change processes. I contend we must think of each step as an integral part of the process of getting where we want to be. As they say in NLP, there’s no failure, only feedback.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.