Managing yourself creatively
Your pet project is canceled by the front office. Your million-dollar idea doesn’t pan out. A completed job doesn’t much resemble the picture of perfection you’ve been carrying around in your head. In one way or another, you’ve failed and you feel resentful and frustrated.
What can you do to regain your emotional equilibrium?
You can, first of all, realize that failure is not the end of the world. Rather, it is a stern teacher from whom you can – indeed, must – learn.
Then you can study your failure to determine its cause. Was it case of poor preparation? Insufficient data? Bad timing? Incomplete follow-through? Upon reflection, for example, you may find that your failure is traceable to jumping to conclusions, misinterpreting certain facts, relying too little (or too much) on others, or simple carelessness.
When you have satisfied yourself that you know all the reasons for failure, you are ready for the next step of making sure that the cause of your failure is not permitted to recur. If possible, set up a procedure or adopt a policy guaranteeing permanent elimination of the trouble. For instance, if you have found that the cause of your mistake was your taking action with too little available information, you can take steps to assure yourself of obtaining sufficient information in the future.
The important rule is never ignoring failure. If you do, you are apt to repeat it. It is, in short, no crime to fail. The crime is not learning from failure and not improving thereby.
Want to turn your next “lemon” into lemonade? Try this program.
ACCEPT THE RESPONSIBILITY
During the Johnson Administration, Washington Democrats told a story of the confirmed Republican who dreamed of four beautiful girls. He was awakened by the chirping of birds and found four starlings perched outside his window. Looking at his newspaper, he noticed that it was April 4 – the fourth day of the fourth month. It all had to be of some significance, he decided, and checked the day’s horse races. Sure enough, in the fourth race, a horse named Henry IV was starting from postposition four. Rushing to the track, he bet $400 on the horse and confidently watched the race.
The horse came in fourth.
“Damn this Administration anyway!” he muttered, tearing up his tickets.
True or not, that story points up the all-too-human tendency to blame others for our own mistakes. While comforting, of course, there is one thing wrong with this approach. By refusing to accept the responsibility for an error, you virtually assure yourself of repeating it. And there is no profit in that. So, when you make a mistake, admit it. That’s crucial.
ASSESS THE DAMAGE
Before you can deal with a mistake intelligently, you must know how bad it is. Areas to investigate include:
(a) ITS IMPORTANCE There is a world of difference between the sales manager who incorrectly estimates future sales of a product in his district and a vice president of sales who persuades his firm to retool and introduce a new product with no consumer appeal. The sales manager can always revise his figures or run sales contest to boost his salesmen’s performance. The vice president may be responsible for losing a great deal of money for his firm, forcing it to retrench, or even go out of business.
In determining the importance of a mistake, however, beware of underestimating or overestimating it. In the first case, you overlook or minimize its effects. In the second case, you conjure up visions of imminent ruin which are unwarranted by the facts.
(b) ITS COST obviously, there is no comparison between a Rs.500 mistake and a Rs.5, 0000 blunder. In estimating the cost of an error, however, remember to include the value of time lost, manpower wasted, tools and equipment used.
(c) ITS REPERCUSSIONS on you, your department, and your company. Does it upset deadlines, interfere with the work of others, or adversely affect the “big picture”?
DETERMINE THE CAUSE
Everything, from a sneeze to a snowstorm, has a cause. If you want to profit from your mistakes, you must find out why it happened. When you do, you can take appropriate steps to prevent those causes from building up again.
Determining the cause of a mistake takes some detective work. And, like a detective, you will have to do a certain amount of interrogating. Some questions you will have to ask, and answer, yourself; some you will have to put to others. Here are the most important ones.
(a) “WAS MY PLANNING BAD”? In attempting to discover why something went wrong, consider your planning. Did you allow yourself enough time? Did you have enough money? Did you have the kind and number of personnel required for the job? Did you use the right equipment? Did you use the right kind of material? Did you anticipate the bottlenecks that developed? Such self-interrogation will tell you whether or not the reason for your error was poor planning.
(b) “WAS MY TIMING BAD”? Frequently, mistakes are caused by poor timing, the launching of a plan or enterprise at the wrong day of the week, wrong week of the month, wrong month or season of the year. Consider your timing, then, in any “post-mortem” of a mistake.
(c) “WAS MY INFORMATION BAD”? In your search for the cause of your error, review the information upon which you acted. As things turned out, was any of it unreliable? Incomplete? Obsolete? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you have your villain – or one of them. Next time, use other sources.
(d) “WAS ANYONE ELSE AT FAULT”? Sometimes, we are innocent. The seeds of the error in question have been sown by somebody else such as a lazy subordinate who took an ill-advised shortcut; a supplier who failed to meet a deadline; a co-worker who simply didn’t pull his share of the load. Don’t look for scapegoats, but, nevertheless, don’t overlook the possibility that your error may be he result of someone else’s carelessness.
(e) “WAS MY PLAN PROPERLY SUPERVISED?” Did you rely too much on others for the implementation of your plan? It’s unrealistic to expect them to bring the same interest and enthusiasm as you would to your pet project.
The solution to this is adequate supervision, which doesn’t mean hounding or subjecting others to a steady snowfall of memos or telephoning them a dozen times a day. It does mean making their jobs crystal clear to them, in the first place; keeping yourself available for (and encouraging questions; checking on progress at reasonable intervals; insuring that those working together cooperate fully with each other.
DISCUSS WITH OTHERS
So much for the questions you ought to ask yourself. There still remains the job of cross-examining those who were involved in the error. These may be employees, customers, clients, suppliers – anyone. Whoever they may be, ask:
(a) “WERE COMMUNICATIONS POOR?” Because we know what we mean, we frequently assume that our instructions to others are clear. Sometimes they aren’t. We omit a vital step; leaves too much to the imagination; expect others to be mind readers. That’s why it pays to check on communications. Was your plan clear? Was there difficulty in getting additional information? Were you sometimes unavailable for questioning? Did you inadvertently give the impression that you didn’t want to be bothered by “details”? Did you refuse advice? Were you stubborn or domineering?
(b) “WERE TOOLS OR EQUIPMENT BAD”? A conked-out car, truck, office machine, or power tool can sabotage the best – laid plans. Defective wiring or improper lighting can set back any schedule. It has recently been estimated that the India loses more than Rs. 200 million annually from rust and corrosion alone! So in your examination of others, find out whether poor equipment was at the root of your failure.
(c) “DID THEY RUN INTO UNEXPECTED PROBLEMS?” We can’t always anticipate the problems that crop up between our goals and us. If, for example, the success of your plan depends on a subordinate obtaining certain information from Mr. Ashwani and Mr. Ashwani is away on his annual vacation, obviously your plan is stymied for a while. No matter what the project in which you are engaged, a hundred unexpected things can go wrong. Frequently, others are reluctant to admit that they failed to foresee some eventuality; it’s up to you to get them to give you the facts.
At this point, you should have a pretty fair notion of the cause of your mistake. You’ve done a lot of necessary spadework. Now, and only now, are you equipped to cash in on what you have learned.
PREPARE A NEW PLAN OF ACTION
Generally, the reason for a failure dictates the remedial action to be taken.
Communications were poor because you weren’t always available to subordinates? Make sure they have access to you in future.
Your planning was poor because you underestimated the amount of money needed? Next time; allow yourself a financial “cushion” above and beyond your estimate.
Before you prepare your new plan you should;
(a) SALVAGE WHAT YOU CAN One mistake don’t prove that the plan or program in which it occurred is a totally poor one. It simply indicates that somewhere along the line, you erred. Everything you did prior to what went wrong may be perfect. Everything you did after what went wrong may be beyond reproach. Therefore, review your project from beginning to end, isolating those steps, phases or portions that remain unaffected by the mistake. These can be used again-with increased confidence, for they have already been tested on the firing line and come through with flying colors.
(b) REVISE YOUR APPROACH you have identified those portions of your idea, plan or project that appear to work; your job now becomes one of correcting the portions that do not work.
Search for new methods. A fresh approach may pop up during and idle conversation with a friend, from the pages of a newspaper, or out of your own imagination. Luckily, they are easier to summon once you can say to yourself. “This is what’s wrong”. And, at this point, you can. The general rule is to keep alert. Specifically, expose yourself to sources of new ideas, solutions and methods of colleagues, other people in your field and the printed word.
Get them down on paper. No matter how wild a new method may seem, jots it down; you can always evaluate it later. Besides, even a zany idea may trigger a new more practical train of thought. Toward this end, always carry a pen or pencil and a small notebook with you.
Assign new people to jobs. If your “cross-examination” uncovers an incompetent or inadequate worker among the personnel involved in a job, revision may be a simple matter of “bringing in some fresh blood”. Sometimes, too, a mere re-arrangement of assignments unleashes new thinking, uncorks old bottlenecks.
Brief new personnel. Update these new people by explaining to them the mistake that was made and what you have learned from it. That way, they will avoid repeating the error, be better able to pursue new directions.
(c) LOOK FOR “BUGS”. Before acting on your revised plan, examine it carefully for flaws. Does this approach really avoid the consequences of the failure it is replacing? Why? May it result in a new setback of some kind? To the best of your knowledge, have you considered all factors? The extra time this detective work may take is added insurance that you are on the right track. By subjecting each alternative to such an examination, you should eventually be able to choose the one with the very best chance of working out.
Now that you have prepared a new plan of action, it only remains to.
IMPLEMENT YOUR NEW PLAN
Everything you have done up to this point is, in a sense, prelude and it’s now time to put your new plan of action into effect. Here are three activities in which you must finally engage if you are to extract the full measure of lemonade locked up in your “lemon”.
(a) PREPARE A SCHEDULE Now that you know what your new goal is, make sure you know when you may reasonably expect to reach it. Set a time, day or date for the completion of each element and do your best to adhere to it. By thus establishing a schedule, you create a kind of advance warning system that helps you spot mistakes before they occur. Should you find that a particular element in your new plan is taking much less or much more time than you allotted to it, you can check immediately to discover why. Perhaps someone isn’t following instructions or may be some mechanical failure is to blame. Alerted, you can nip error in the bud.
(b) START IT ROLLING Dive in and get to work. Make all necessary phone calls. Tackle the paper work involved. Delegate whatever jobs must be farmed out. If your project requires it, get firm commitments from other people, other departments, and other companies.
(c) FOLLOW UP Essentially, this consists of two things:
Good Communications. Are all written messages and instructions clear? Are lines of communications as uncluttered as possible? That is, can you reach others – and they, you-swiftly? Are you all “speaking the same language”; or is technical jargon liable to interfere with true communications?
Keeping tabs on progress. Is everyone doing what he is supposed to? Are all the “gears” in your plan “meshing”? For example, if B cannot do his job until A completes a certain part of his, how is A coming along? Are those involved in the project cooperating with each other? How about yourself? Are you “on top” of the situation, in control of all elements? Are the people to whom you have delegated responsibility shouldering it in the manner you wish? Who needs help? And how can you help him? Is your schedule being followed? These questions are vital parts of any successful follow-up. If you can answer them satisfactorily, pat yourself on the back. You’ve earned it!