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Hawaii_Jake's avatar

What does failure mean to you?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (32697points) January 26th, 2016

General Section question

I had a major project at work that ended in failure on my part. There were other people involved, but the buck stops with me.

I have learned a lesson. Everyone has been very supportive. I have a meeting scheduled with the boss to talk about it in 2 days, and it’s a meeting I asked for.

I am new in my job, and I was not given any information about the procedures surrounding the project I was given. It turns out I needed to follow certain protocol that I had no clue about. So now I know to ask about next steps every time I have something to do. (I work in government, and protocol is important.)

This failure means I get to spend some time processing my personal emotions on my own, in meditation, and in therapy. I will get to hear everything my boss wants to say about how I messed up. Also, now I know what it feels like to completely mess something up at this job.

This failure also means I get the opportunity to practice being brave. I asked for the meeting with the boss. I made the phone calls to the affected individuals. I wrote the emails. (And I feel like shit.)

What does failure mean to you?

As an added question: how do you work through the personal ramifications?

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20 Answers

RedDeerGuy1's avatar

Failure means losing everything and not being able to fix or redo for a second chance. An irreversible mistake. I deal with failure by incrementally improving my self. One step at a time.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I think failure can have levels. I didn’t lose everything due to this incident, but I still failed. I made a big mistake. I appreciate hearing how you deal with it. Thank you.

CWOTUS's avatar

Oh, there are all kinds of platitudes to offer, @Hawaii_Jake. One of them that occurs to me now is that “Failure is just a stepping stone on the road to Success.”

Well, it is.

I’m assuming that not too many were killed as a result? If no one was killed, were there any life-changing injuries caused as a consequence? If so, either of those circumstances would leave indelible memories that you’d certainly need to process and deal with, to atone for in some way, I’m sure. Perhaps, carloads of money were lost, which will leave many families scratching for their very existence…

Okay, yes, I’m being hyperbolic, I presume. (I hope!) I expect that your failure caused some more-than-inconsequential loss of money in a government budget (as if those run out), a few noises out of joint, some loss of time and embarrassment. (Not only yours. If your boss gave you a job that you were not instructed on how to perform then he bears at least as much responsibility as you – perhaps more, if he simply assumed that you knew all there was to know about the mystery protocol and failed to supervise or to ask for progress reports and so forth.)

Eisenhower once remarked that “Farming is easy when your plow is a pencil and the cornfield is a thousand miles away.” We all do make mistakes. If there was a strict protocol to be followed for the particular job that you were assigned and no one told you that then you can’t be shouldering this whole thing on your own.

This really is just a stepping stone, you know.

Jeruba's avatar

I sympathize. I had to deal with a failed project too.

This one wasn’t a procedural matter. Rather, it took the form “Here’s the solution we want your team to choose. Try to have the problem that fits it.” As the team leader, I insisted on analyzing the situation anyway, defining the real problem, and considering all reasonable solutions, and the result was not the one we were told to find. The first-line managers then refused to back the recommendations we made.

For as long as I worked there, several more years, I was never allowed to forget that that was a major black mark on my record. Honesty, good faith, and sincere effort were not wanted; prescribed outcomes were wanted.

I’d do exactly the same thing if it happened again today.

The next time I was asked to helm a project, I tried to get it in writing from the same second-line manager that we were not working toward a predetermined result. I was given the assurances, and then the plug was pulled. The manager never forgave me for trying to pin him down and make him honor his guarantee. End of my project-lead subcareer.

But you’re much younger and probably a lot less contrary. Here’s your chance to show how you can learn and grow from a setback. Also to demonstrate that you’re not a whiner or a finger-pointing blame-evader. Sounds like you’re doing great so far.

I suggest that you also pay attention to who’s giving you support right now and who isn’t. That’ll be useful information someday.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@CWOTUS Thankfully, no blood was shed nor did anyone die. My reputation is sullied. I’ll live through it. The boss’s secretary knows the truth, and she honestly runs the office. Truly. I’m honest when I say I had no idea there were rules to follow to pull this thing off. I got the order by email, and then never heard a word from anyone about next steps. I’ve learned. The others weren’t mean spirited. They simply don’t know how to think creatively and compassionately and offer their experience to the new guy.

@Jeruba That story sounds awful. I have already learned, and I will grow. Not everyone in the office knows what’s going on. My colleague is bending over backward to help, and the boss’s secretary, the one mentioned above who runs the office, is being a tremendous help. I will remember their good help forever.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

Failure means giving up to me. I only consider I’ve failed when I throw in the towel and walk away. Even then, ‘to fail’ would mean I walked away without good reason.

I’ve stuffed up on a number of occasions. I haven’t failed often. Mistakes happen. Mistakes aren’t failure. You can learn from mistakes and do better next time.

dammitjanetfromvegas's avatar

I’ve never thought about what it means to me. It’s just a part of life. You take ownership and move on.

Stinley's avatar

I’ve made some mistakes and do keep in my head afterwards the perspective of ‘it’s only money in essence; no-one was hurt’. I put full effort into my work – I don’t think like that when I am trying to achieve the objectives – but this helps when things go wrong.

Saying that, I was made redundant and didn’t get the job that was ringfenced for me because of mistakes that I made. This affected me greatly and even now 8 years on, I am still feeling the consequences to an extent. I can now see though that it was a very toxic atmosphere in that place and I am better off where I am.

Cruiser's avatar

Failure to me is always a learning opportunity that almost always leads to future successes. Your pride is what is causing the bulk of your emotions and it is undoubtedly amplified by this event affecting not only your pride but being the new guy the last thing you want to do is fail at something especially on a grand scale that you are describing.

Don’t be too hard on yourself as we as humans make mistakes…everyone makes mistakes and we are often our harshest critics. At your meeting with the boss, if given the opportunity be prepared to line item all the things you learned from this event and how this “learning” experience will help you do a much better job in future projects and I would also be specific as to what you in hindsight realize you should have done that would have prevent this unfortunate event from happening.

What have the involved co-workers said about what you did or didn’t do? I am curious to know if anyone of them knew better and assisted you to doing the right procedures or protocols?

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@SecondHandStoke Yes.
@Earthbound_Misfit I like that way of saying it: “stuffed up”. I will use that.
@dammitjanetfromvegas My blessing and my curse is thinking.
@Stinley I’m glad you’re in a better place now.
@Cruiser Yes, I have learned. I will prepare a list for the boss, should he ask. I am feeling what I’m feeling. I repress nothing. I learned a long time ago that emotions, whether they come from hurt pride or somewhere else, have to be felt. They can’t be denied. It’s easier to feel it fresh and get it over with. After this unfolded, I learned one co-worker was charged with helping me with projects when I was hired in August. This is the first I’ve heard of it. They will certainly be helping me with other upcoming projects, because I’m going to make sure they do.

CWOTUS's avatar

Prior to my employer becoming ISO-9000 certified most of our work was governed by unwritten rules and practices from wayback, hive mind, professional experience (which always differs among professionals), “common knowledge”, so-called common sense and special rules for special projects, special customers, organizational change, new boss or somebody’s new brainstorm, etc.

Eventually, after much kicking and screaming (some of that nearly literal) as a part of the ISO certification process we developed formal, written, revision-controlled, sign-offs-required Work Instructions, on which we are audited by an outside agency at least annually, and sometimes more frequently if required. The difference has been night and day.

It used to be that if we hired a new employee it would be a minimum of six months (in the office environment) before he could be considered “useful” and trusted to handle anything more than purely elementary busywork or “anyone can do it” mundane tasks. Now that our major processes are documented we simply turn him loose on the manual and have him read-and-acknowledge. (The manual is internally online, and contains Work Instructions to all departments, so when some of our output becomes another group’s input, or vice versa, the references are included in each department’s Work Instructions.) The Work Instructions also include form templates, sample reports of the type to be developed, scheduling requirements (since our projects are typically more than four years from contract signing to delivery, and then include warranties of various years after that). We have him read and sign off on the manual in a week or so, answer the inevitable questions that arise over the course of a few more weeks, and watch as the person confidently walks into the new job. And because our processes are standardized, we all know where to look for work product if he’s not around or if someone else has left the company.

Yeah, there are still holes, last-minute revisions and too many ad hoc changes that don’t get documented as they should or as fast as they should, but those things are also discovered at audit time and lead to a certain amount of embarrassment among managers when that occurs. So year by year we’re tightening our compliance, our need and intent to maintain revisions, to update templates, add instructions as products and requirements and the organization change, etc.

It’s a very good system, even as far from perfect as it is, and it is light years ahead of where we were. All it takes now is someone wanting to do the job correctly, as you obviously do, and we can point to a single source, available to all employees in the exact same form and level of revision, and tell him, “There are your instructions. Ask if you have any questions.” And managers never know not to blindly trust – no matter how diligent the employee seems to be – until competence has been fully demonstrated.

If you had questions and didn’t ask them, well, that’s on you, and that would be a type of failure that you need to address, because it’s a personal one. But if you were merely left to your own devices and it was assumed without management oversight or questions of their own that you knew what to do, then this is not a “failure” on your part – and I would never own it as such. Otherwise, for the organization, this is a perfect example of “teachable moment”. (Another result of our experience now is a “Return on Experience” database where we formally document exactly the kind of experience you and @Jeruba have described, in order that we not fall into the same traps tomorrow, next year or five years from now.)

I will leave it to you to guess who writes the Work Instructions for our group.

flutherother's avatar

It’s painful, but it isn’t failure. Failure only comes when you give up and stop trying.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@CWOTUS I had no questions to ask. I had completed a proposal, which was accepted. I thought I was done. It turns out there were procedures after the proposal was accepted to follow that would send it to other departments for further evaluation. I went on my merry way making preparations for the things to occur and only at the very end did anyone ask about the further approvals. I will be asking lots of questions from now on. I can’t imagine who could possibly write work instructions.

@flutherother It has been painful.

CWOTUS's avatar

That’s why I’m saying that this was a systemic / management failure, not so much – maybe even not at all – “your failure”. You didn’t know. How can you expect to know that which you do not realize needs to be known? Okay, yeah, you could be a scientist or an anthropologist studying your workplace, but that’s not what you’re paid to do. And if you’re not even told what procedures you need to follow, then how is it your failure?

I’m all in favor of taking responsibility and owning up to the things that I do wrong – I seem to do it weekly in one way or another – but I don’t own any responsibility for not knowing things out of my ken.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake, I agree totally with @CWOTUS. If there are organisational procedures that were not explained to you, you didn’t fail. The people who were supposed to inform you of those procedures failed. You’re not a mind reader. While I don’t think you should tell your manager ‘it was all your fault’. I do think you have to clearly demonstrate that you had no way of knowing those procedures existed unless someone told you. Certainly you can learn from this and you will know in future to ask about any required procedures.

Similarly with @Jeruba‘s story. I doubt very much @Jeruba would have taken a superficial approach to her work or the process she employed. That the people on the receiving end of her team’s report didn’t like the message and recommendations it presented is not a failure of her team or her management. It would appear to me that those who requested the report wanted a document that would support their preferred view of a situation rather than an analytical, accurate evaluation. If they wanted a report that said (a), regardless of the real situation, they should have communicated that to @Jeruba. Given my limited knowledge of the lady, I somehow doubt she would have been prepared to fudge her findings to suit their needs, but had they told her what they really wanted she would have at least had an accurate understanding of the task they wanted her to complete.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I had a meeting with my boss. He began by explaining to me that what happened to me is a systemic problem in our division, and he is taking steps to rectify it (My boss is the division head). We talked about bureaucratic processes. We came up with one person in the division I can go to now for all types of questions. He told me it was obvious from the pain on my face I’d learned a valuable lesson.

There was never any blame. No names of other people involved ever came up. It was very “clean” and straightforward. There were no signs of negativity really.

I am greatly relieved.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

That is wonderful @Hawaii_Jake. It sounds like you had a very productive meeting and you’ll come away with a possible mentor to help you develop your knowledge of the organisation. Great news. I’m sure you feel greatly relieved.

Jeruba's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake, I can’t think of a better outcome, given where you began. You’ve probably gained significant respect and confidence from your boss. I’m very glad to see this news. Congratulations.

rojo's avatar

Just remember what Winston Churchill said: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

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