Failing With Success

Skipping follow-up just because a project went well stacks the odds against us for the future.
A while back Harvard Business Review ran articles about failure. Nestled in that collection was an article on avoiding future failures by learning from success (Why Leaders Don’t Learn From Success).

The article related the story of Ducati Motorcycles entering competitive racing back in 2003. When they encountered unexpected and spectacular success in their very first year, they abandoned their initial goal of using that year to learn and, instead, chalked success up to their innate superiority. As you likely suspected, their performance fell sharply their second year because their assumptions about the reasons for their success were well off the mark.

The HBR article tied in well with Jim Collins’ book “How the Mighty Fall” – research into successful companies that fell into distress. Collins documents leaders losing sight of the true factors that created their success when they fail to constantly study WHY they succeeded. Instead, we human beings are far more likely to over-estimate our personal contribution to the success.

Rather Not…

We will always, of course, have at least two very good reasons to avoid studying our successes:

  1. We’re very busy! Particularly after the recession’s downsizings, every company is running extremely lean. The thought of adding the burden of analyzing what is working well seems insane.
  2. We’re very comfortable — with our initial assumption that we were responsible for our success. No one is naturally motivated to find alternative explanations.

…But Worth It

It demands leadership and discipline to perform an honest post-mortem on every project. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Some projects succeed because of emerging conditions. However, if we don’t identify and acknowledge their roles in current successes, we’ll miss the opportunity to exploit those conditions further.
  • On the flip side, a project would have failed but for unforeseen luck. Here we need to adjust our evaluation and decision practices to avoid a failure the next time we aren’t so fortunate.
  • Giving credit to the wrong people generates misplaced trust in the future. Do we want the next, bigger project in the hands of folks who escaped failure due to luck?

It’s no easier getting a objective view of why we succeeded than getting a candid picture of why we failed but here are a couple of post-mortem questions that help:

  • What went better than we expected? Why? How can we exploit that in the future?
  • What went poorer than we expected? Why? Do we need to change our analysis or planning in the future?
  • How might someone argue the results were due more to luck than to good planning & execution?

Yes, we’re busy. No, I don’t really want to look closer when it feels better to take all the credit. Still, there’s as much to be learned from our successes as from any other projects if we have the discipline to follow-up!

© Dave Wittenberg