The wisdom to learn from failure

Great management advice for running successful project, portfolio, team, or anything else.

My buddy, Peter Kretzman, a CIO for hire, is wise in the ways of technology and business. Coming across a recent blog post of his, I was struck by a brazen, yet common sense, remark:

Here’s a shocker: none of us has failed to fail at times.

Shocker indeed, and something we should all remember. Peter also offers a bunch of great ideas to prevent failure, achieve success, and manage gracefully along the way.

In no particular order:

  • Let people own their projects/efforts/tasks.  Even if you could do it better. Even if the result is not exactly, precisely, perfectly what you thought you wanted.  Most of the time, if the result is 90% of where you wanted it (completeness, style, content), it’ll do.
  • Don’t take people’s work output and tweak it unless it’s absolutely necessary.  You don’t always have to visibly “add value” to be legitimate or respected.
  • You need to be a collaborator at least as much as a critic. Solve problems together with your team.  That doesn’t mean do their work for them, but it means actively being there, understanding the issues, and helping figure out course corrections, not merely waiting to evaluate results.
  • Don’t suck up all the oxygen in the room. Let others talk, shine, steer. There’s no rule that says that the most senior person in the room has to run the meeting, for example.
  • Most people need regular shots of both thanks and praise. Thanks and praise are not the same.
  • Not everyone is motivated the exact same way. Your approach to a situation can and usually should differ, depending on what motivates the person you’re dealing with.
  • It’s helpful to assume that your team is collectively and individually smarter than you are, but that they’re possibly not as aware of or focused on the big picture. You’re there to confirm (and guide) that what they’re doing corresponds to the larger goals.
  • Each of your team members has ideas and experience and expertise and smart things to say. Listen, don’t just talk.
  • Keep ever mindful of the following: you will (almost) never have a team member who doesn’t at heart want to excel in their role.
  • Remember: as an executive, you’re there (almost solely) for three basic things: to set the fundamental direction, to allocate resources appropriately, and to make the tough decisions that others won’t or can’t.  People are looking to you to do those specific things, reliably and well. Don’t let them down.
  • Give people a lot of rope, whenever you can. Particularly when they have passion and excitement.  Find ways to say yes to their approaches and initiative, to every reasonable degree.
  • Embrace and exemplify continuous improvement as a philosophy and approach to all things.
  • Celebrate successes. Guide people past their failures, and make those into positive learning experiences as much as you can.  This one sounds easy, but was among the hardest for me to absorb.
  • “Managing upwards” and sideways (peers, CEO, board) is every bit as important as managing your team. But it’s not an either/or. Depending on the circumstances, there will be times when you focus more on one than the other; both are equally deserving of your energy.
  • Admit your mistakes. Don’t stonewall or rewrite history about them.
  • Speak positively of your team members, of peers, of management, of vendors. When you don’t, people notice, and they extrapolate.

Sadly, the people who most need this advice will ignore it.

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