Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Failures, reasoning and rationalization

As I prepare to write this entry, I have my mind immersed in darkened thoughts about what we bring upon ourselves whenever we fail at something.

It is not failure itself that worries me; it is how we choose to deal with it.

Rationalization is at the same time the easiest and the worst way to respond. Good natured rationalization is either self-inflicted by our need to quickly get through a momentary loss or directly offered by a colleague who does not want to see us demotivated.


My suggestion is: ignore your instincts and peers and **feel** the pain. That may sound incredibly naive but you have to feel it in the right way. Feeling pain is not about going to a corner and sulking for an hour, it is about accepting that things went wrong and studying what went wrong to be prepared for another day.

What is devilish about rationalizing failure is hidden in the Latin root of the word itself: "ratio". When we rationalize, we create a relationship between two or more things. When we rationalize failure, we invariably create a relationship between the failure and something good. Given time, a good rationalizer can bring himself to believe there was no failure at all, after all "look at how much we have learned", "how much worse it could have been", or "how it was a better attempt than the previous one".

Given time and enough people, rationalization becomes a culture, and a bad one at that. For socially acceptable reasons and just good behavior within a functional team, no one is supposed to declare a failure other than the owner of the task at hand. It is upon the owner of the failed task to declare it a failure and look up to his peers to help him reason as to what went wrong and how those same mistakes can be prevented in the future.

Failing that act of self-immolation, we are left with the worse alternative: When the owner of a failed task does not declare it a failure, **the team still knows it**. Trust is broken. Managerial evaluations compound to the problem in that no one wants a failure in their record when they know that their peers will not be as forthcoming about their failures.

When nothing is admitted as failure, there is only one outcome: success. If people do not feel like they can admit their mistakes, they have only two choices: succeed at everything or declare everything a success. Of course loose objectives are a great aid to successful people in that there is always wiggle room to define success. The dooming mechanics unfold quickly after that point, with declared success being easier to achieve than real success.

Whether one ever reaches a degree of career stability or maturity in life where they can admit their mistakes, it is a very personal question. Very few people can answer that question one way or another.

This posting is not a eulogy to failure; there is no organization that can indefinitely sustain repeated failures. However, it is my belief that the only way to preempt a string of failures is to admit the first one.

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