Failing Successfully

At work, I’m on the board of an organization that supports the advancement of women into senior positions in my federal agency. Some time in the next month, I am supposed to host an informal brown-bag on the topic of failure. Failure is a topic near and dear to my heart. Professional and personal failures have taught me lots. Sometimes I imagine developing an instruction manual for failure akin to the Handbook For The Recently Deceased in “Beetlejuice.”

There were two posts this weekend that piqued my interest in this regard. One was the Washington Post item April 25 about Martha Johnson, the former director of the General Services Administration who resigned in 2012 in the wake of a scandal. The other was a recently released study of professionalism in the U.S. military circa 1970. Two thoughts occur to me:

  • Encountering professional near-death experiences at the beginning and middle of your career is a blessing, assuming you learn from your mistakes and the reactions of others. I am eager to read Martha Johnson’s book to see what her experiences were earlier in her career. The people I know who have suffered the worst from career catastrophe have been people who never crashed and burned until they were already in senior positions.
  • Failing to analyze mistakes and missed opportunities is a major source of future failure. I recall participating in an exercise at the Army War College in 2000 and being blown away by the military culture of after-action reviews, in which all parties were encouraged to discuss what went right and wrong in a given activity. I don’t know how many of the recommendations from the study were implemented, but I wonder how many federal agencies have undertaken similar studies.

I would love to hear about personal or institutional episodes of failure and recovery from your experiences. Will you share?

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