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4 min read

How to Avoid Failing Elegantly

By NAIFA on 7/10/12 1:56 PM

Why do so many talented organizations with clear goals fail to win victories that should have been easily within their grasps? It’s because they’ve been infected with the disease I call “failing elegantly.”

This debilitating syndrome sets in when people stop believing they can be successful and start devoting their energy to how best to lose. The driving elements of failing elegantly are 1) having a sophisticated explanation for the loss 2) making sure we appear to have tried everything in our power to avoid the outcome. But what is forgotten is this harsh reality: There are no style points for second place.

Here are a few leadership mistakes that put your team in danger of failing elegantly, and some remedies to get them back into the winner’s mindset.

Setting impossible goals

Leading the goal-setting process to arrive at objectives that are perfectly sized is very tricky, but it has never been more important to success than it is in today’s geographically dispersed, virtual organizations. Taskmasters and pacesetting leaders need to learn the fine line between an invigorating challenge and a wholly deflating expectation, and to realize that everyone on the team may not share their level of maniacal commitment.

While top performers are inspired by “stretch” goals that seem slightly out of their reach, smart team members will not waste their time training for a “three- minute” mile. Goals that are clearly beyond any reasonable confidence of achievement are worse than easy goals—they actually disengage your team’s energy. The predictable and natural response is “Why bother?”

Letting people get pseudo-wins by “majoring in the minors"

Very talented people can lose focus on the critical problems that must be solved to transform an idea into reality. Those are often the knottiest problems, and sometimes we resist them for a period of time, preferring to create some satisfying momentum on simpler tasks, or on tasks that are simply more fun.

Tolerating “The dog ate my homework” and other common excuses

In an organization, too much tolerance can be dangerous, mainly because without a clear line in the sand defining acceptable and unacceptable, a blurred line between success and failure follows. When you’re failing elegantly, for example, you tolerate “The dog ate my homework” and other classic excuses. No results plus a good excuse is presented in lieu of results—and tolerated. Massive amounts of energy are poured into sophisticated justifications and rationalizations for certain courses of action, and there is veiled blame for everything outside the team’s control.

What you want, and what the winner’s mindset demands, are insightful explanations for the gap between expected and actual performance. These are informed guesses—as informed and objective as they can be, untainted by the effort expended in dodging responsibility. There is tolerance of the simple fact that we don’t have control over every variable in the game, so at times, through either forces outside our influence or simply not having run our best play, the results are not as we wish.

Allowing sloppiness and imprecision

The nice guy in you wants to avoid the perception of being too tough and will politely look the other way or catalog it away with some good-natured humor, allowing a report to be incomplete or some shoddy work to pass as acceptable.

Leaders want to be good people, and they want to show others that they have the wisdom to accept human frailty. So they allow themselves to tolerate a little sloppiness here and a little imprecision there in their subordinates’ work. But high-reliability organizations never allow sloppiness because they know it equals death. Unusually excellent leaders have a zero tolerance policy for sloppiness.

Encouraging “editorialized” data

One area where failure can take hold is in the feedback process. Leaders, being eternal optimists and enthusiasts, also have a tendency to signal, often unconsciously, their dislike of bad news, their inner revulsion toward failure. When that happens—especially when that leader hasn’t regularly established an absolute demand for accurate, objective data—subordinates will begin to shape and color the data to meet the leader’s hopeful expectations and emotional needs, rather than the leader’s intellectual needs. The feedback data starts becoming corrupted, and that, in turn, begins to undermine the overall strategy—until the likelihood of success itself begins to plummet.

Unusually excellent leaders demand that performance feedback data be delivered promptly and be objective, plentiful, and robust. This data is used to figure out what is working and what isn’t, so that corrections to course and speed can be made.

Failing to measure what matters

The right metrics will serve you in useful ways. As the Crosby Quality Institute reminds us: You will get what you inspect, not what you expect.

Measuring what matters is perhaps the highest use of leadership authority in leading the domain of execution. Once the plan is set, the resources and funding are committed, and the action starts, there is mostly just feedback and response to the unknowns of the battle to be managed.

The one thing you must have to make the real-time course corrections that will inevitably be required is good data. Invest in the design and the machinery required to gather, analyze, and present the data you need—quickly, accurately, and easily.

Allowing an absolute commitment to winning to slip

A tolerance for excuses, corrupt data that compromises strategy, and a distorted view of what is really happening “out there” is akin to boiling a frog one degree at a time. The frog can’t tell how hot the water has gotten until it is dead. But if you put all these factors together and add the heightened sense of urgency that always characterizes the execution phase, you’ll have plenty of the necessary ingredients in place for systematic failure. The key factor is the resignation and rationalization that occurs when we conclude that winning seems out of reach.

Passive acceptance of failure, together with the rationalization that always goes with it, is a cancer that can begin anywhere in the organization, then metastasize to every office, including your own. You can prevent it by setting clear and precise standards of behavior for everyone on the team, as well as clear consequences for the violation of those standards. And you can control it through continuous and open communication with every member of your team.

By John Hamm


John Hamm is a top leadership expert in Silicon Valley. He has been a CEO, a board member at over 30 companies, and a CEO adviser and executive coach to senior leaders at many companies. His book is Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership. For more information, visit www.unusuallyexcellent.com.




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