By Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan
The first few weeks of a new year are always an optimistic time. It’s a clean slate, a chance to put the mistakes of the previous year behind us and to boldly stride in the direction of our business dreams. Typically as we write our new year’s business resolutions, we focus solely on what we hope to gain, expect to achieve or even what we wish to change. However, one of the things business owners rarely do, when outlining their business goals for the year, is to focus on failure and this kind of scenario planning that is critical to the success of any business.
Often times, this kind of negative planning is seen as pessimistic by those adherents of the ‘self-help’ genre, but as anyone who has achieved real-life success can attest, failure is a constant, and in many cases necessary, ingredient to any story of accomplishment.
What we’re talking about isn’t the kind of overly negative catastrophizing that can actually be panic inducing and counter-productive, but a real world assessment of what could reasonably go wrong with our best laid plans and a conscious preparedness to either change course or redouble our efforts should these scenarios eventuate.
Recently, we attended a Waterworld performance at Universal Studios in California. It was an amazing display of special effects, explosions, stunts and precision choreography. What we didn’t realize, and we suspect none of the audience was any the wiser either, was that the show was also filled with mistakes – little failures that had been anticipated, measured and negated through strategic planning.
We sat down with the cast and crew after the performance and asked them about how often things went awry and they smiled nervously at each other before revealing the handful of mistakes that had been a part of the day’s performance.
It turns out they practice a series of alternative scenarios for every sequence they perform. They do this as often as they rehearse the main show. In other words, failure is build in to their strategy.
This means that minor failures do not become catastrophic collapses.
Another example of this comes from the aeronautical engineering industry. For decades we have been engineering aircraft so that they are capable of maintaining flight and landing safely, even if an engine, or even half of their engines, fail.
In other words, they succeed in their primary goal even when they suffer a 50% failure rate. Consider what would happen in your business if 50% of your staff or customers stalled midway through the year. Not a happy consideration, but we’d suggest a necessary one.
So how do we plan for business failure? Like the Universal Studios story outlined above, it’s important that we have scenario planning in place.
1. Consider what could happen and assign a likelihood ranking
This is relevant to positive and negative outcomes. You might land a multi-million dollar contract, but if you haven’t been courting a customer with that kind of purchasing power for at least 3-6 months, that’s a little unlikely. So be realistic in your strategic planning and explore likely outcomes.
2. Develop alternative strategies that allow you to be flexible in your approach
In our experience, mental flexibility is a far more important business tool that mental toughness. One allows you to see multiple roads to success while the other can tend to leave you stuck in bloody-minded stubbornness.
3. Learn to fail fast and to “let it go” quickly
One of the issues we constantly see in organizations that have a culture of lionizing persistence is that they misunderstand the concept and tend to try, try and try again, using exactly the same strategy, only to become frustrated when they experience likewise repetitive and sadly predicable results.
True persistence and resilience is in fact a creative skill. It is found in the ability to maintain a long-term focus on a core goal while moving from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm (as Winston Churchill famously suggested).
Planning for failure therefore isn’t the pessimistic practice it is often accused of being, but rather the ability to see optimistic opportunity no matter what gets thrown at you.
Dan Gregory & Kieran Flanagan are behavioral researchers and strategists, specializing in behaviors and belief systems – what drives, motivates and influences us. They have won business awards around the world for Innovation, Creativity and Return on Investment working with such organizations as Coca-Cola, Unilever, News Corp and the United Nations in Singapore. They are passionate advocates for the commercial power of creativity and a return to more human engagement, cultures and leadership. Published by WILEY, Dan and Kieran’s new book Selfish, Scared & Stupid is available in paperback RRP $22.95 from www.selfishscaredandstupid.com. @DanGregoryTII and @KieranFTII.