Fail Better

Summary Written by Ruby McClenaghan
"The right kind of failure instructs, refines, and improves ideas, work products, skills, capacities, and teamwork."

- Fail Better, page 283

The Big Idea

Be conscious of your mindset

"Your workplace interactions, activities, and decisions are shaped by your mind-set – how you approach difficult conversations, select which battles to fight, and make tough trade-offs. Every action you take reveals what you think is important and what you are willing to let slide…"- Fail Better, page 199

I will start by sharing The Free Dictionary’s definition of mindset: “1. A fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations. 2. An inclination or a habit.” Both of these are things we need to be mindful of and assess on a regular basis. Our mindsets filter through many of our daily routines and tasks and depending on how they reveal themselves can be portrayed in a negative or positive light. An important step in beginning to assess and harness our failures as positive learning experiences is to first look inward to ourselves, our attitudes and how we react with the world around us. Only then can we begin to learn from our own actions and make adjustments to habits that have formed over time. Sometimes our mindset is difficult to change, but by being honest about it we can develop coping mechanisms for how to deal with our daily interactions with others.

When I read a business management book I am looking to the authors for some form of professional growth that can help me in my career, however it is more often than not the elements of the book that speak to personal growth that resonate most with me. In our busy lives we often rush along, corralled into our daily routines with little time for personal or professional reflection. Although this book offers wonderful tips for how to harness the power of failure in terms of dealing with projects at work, I paused to think while reading about our mindset and how they shape our world. This pause for self-reflection served me well, because if we are hoping to implement change and adapt in our professional life, we must be conscious of where we might also need to adapt in our personal life.

Insight #1

Capture your findings

"Embed the learning. Instead of losing hard-earned wisdom as you rush on to the next project, capture and share your findings."- Fail Better, page 57

By taking time to evaluate and embed the learning we are not only able to learn and grow, but simply put we can save ourselves wasted time by not duplicating past mistakes. An easy place to start is to create a project timeline history. A timeline is a great place to track where plans deviated, where new projects arose and branched off from the original goal, where new team members were added or subtracted and simply to track all the major elements that make up the project. By capturing your project in a historical timeline it allows for analysis of things such as what were the major milestones, what brought about transitions in the project and were these transitions planned or the result of revelations that came about as the project evolved over time?

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Insight #2

Stay adaptable

"…keep it simple and supple. This is especially important for high-pressure projects that call for a measure of scrappiness. Complicated grand plans could be a waste of time – or worse – for such projects. To innovate, explore, or problem-solve, scrappy projects need to be able to turn on a dime."- Fail Better, page 62

This advice comes from the section of the book about launching your project. When you are in the beginning stages too much pre-planning has the potential to really hamper you in the long run. Remember when you are starting out to KISS – keep it simple, stupid. If you want to welcome innovation into your project’s design you need to be prepared to be flexible and with too much planning that is inflexible you run the risk of organizing yourself into a preordained failure down the road.

We spend so much of our lives celebrating successes and downplaying our failures that we have built a culture of neurotic perfectionists who view flops as flaws. Failure is inevitable. Learning this is the first step to being able to adopt and apply the Fail Better Method. By living our lives as though we are infallible we are actually weakening ourselves in the long run by not allowing ourselves the opportunity for reflection, growth and improvement, which comes from accepting and assessing our failures. Fear of failure also has the ability to hold us back from being uninhibited and truly innovative. What efforts will you make to change the culture around failure in your professional life?

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Anjali Sastry

Anjali Sastry teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, where she joined the faculty in 2001. She tried to leave MIT twice before, once after completing her undergrad degrees in Physics and Russian and later after getting her PhD in management. In the interim, she taught at the University of Michigan and worked at both Bain and Company and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

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