Some years ago, Ashley Good, founder and CEO of Toronto-based consultancy Fail Forward, was working for Engineers Without Borders in Ghana when it soon became clear that the project she was part of was horribly flawed and would not succeed.
Yet when the program evaluator flew in from Rome, Good was shocked to find that none of her colleagues was willing to admit the scope of the problem. “That was a catalyst moment,” she says. “I realized then that the symptom of not being able or willing to talk about what’s not working, regardless of the cause, creates a serious challenge to moving forward.”
Good has since made it her business to help organizations prepare for failure and give them the tools to recover from serious setbacks, such as failure reports and communication exercises. “I don’t want to suggest failure is good,” she says. “Failing is still a bad thing. But not detecting it—or not accepting it—is much worse.” Here are four things you can do to recover when things fall apart.
1. Lose your ego
“Recognize that just because you failed doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. It was something you did. You have to look at it objectively and separate yourself from what happened. Great, smart people make mistakes and fail all the time.”
2. Do a deep-tissue post-mortem
“Our tendency in times of failure is to try to figure out what caused it, fix it as soon as possible and move on. That undermines the depth of learning that’s possible. Try to figure out why the failure happened. What assumptions were made? What experiences led to it? That really deepens what you can learn from the experience. Also, listen to other perspectives on what happened. I often bring together different stakeholders in the failure to talk about it. If you bring five people together, you’ll get five different stories about what went wrong.”
3. Share your story
“It’s the best way to separate yourself from the shame and the other negative emotions that go along with it. Sharing the story and getting other people’s perspectives helps you to see it objectively.”
4. Try again
“Or not. Maybe you’ve learned that you weren’t on the route you should have been on, and that’s fine. But whatever your decision, it’s important to have something lined up that’s a step forward.”