There are literally hundreds of thousands of those hackneyed inspirational posters framed on the walls of corporate America. The ones with a photo of a sunrise, or a tree, or a fishing wire in the water. They have a big bolded buzz word at the top like PERSEVERANCE or CHARACTER. I’m surprised these are still around in the post-Office Space corporate world, but you still see them at certain places (usually at places that, ironically, lack many of these values).
But I’m not here to hate on a business idea that only became cliche because it was a brilliant and made millions before becoming a predictable staple at offices everywhere. Most of the values espoused on those posters relate to the most important facet of business — handling failure.
PERSEVERANCE… in the face of failure
CHARACTER… when the going gets tough
FAILURE… did you know Abraham Lincoln blah blah blah
I could go on. But handling failure really is everything in business, which is exactly why it has born all those cliches. So let’s try to talk about failure while avoiding the eye-rolling moments as best we can. Here’s a simple 3 step methodology that has helped me successfully back away and recover from failure.
Step 1. Acknowledge the situation you’re in
Self-deception can take many forms and this is nowhere more true than in business. Us entrepreneurs like to occasionally pretend that business is strictly a matter of cold hard facts and impersonal balance sheets. There’s an element of truth to this of course but you learn over a lifetime, particularly at the higher level of the game, that many seemingly ironclad realities are really negotiable items.
This is great news on the upside. There’s a world of fluid opportunity awaiting the well-prepared entrepreneurial mind. On the downside though, this can be deadly. It’s all too easy, particularly as the pressure builds in a situation, to sell yourself and others a version of the current or medium term outlook that’s little more than wishful thinking.
Ernest Hemingway put it best back in The Sun Also Rises:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Step one in pulling a situation back from the brink is looking it squarely in the eye. This means putting aside your wishing and hoping and writing down a full objective overview of where you actually are. Not where you’d like to be. Where you are. Sales pipeline, revenue, creditors, debtors, tax situation, staffing concerns – everything. Get it down on paper.
Step 2. Stop the bleeding
There’s a clarity and relief that comes with taking Step 1. Once that initial sensation fades though, it’s easy to fall victim to panic. You can’t believe you let the situation get that out of hand. There’s a million and one “urgent” things that need to be done and you’ve no idea where to begin.
Take a tip from the emergency services. Before you get in there and operate, stop the bleeding so you can see what the hell is going on. Maybe it’s the massively swollen marketing budget that hasn’t delivered provable leads in three quarters. Maybe it’s the highly paid sales team that don’t seem to be bringing in enough to even cover their wages but keep promising that one big deal is around the corner.
It might sound crazy but literally picture yourself as your business. Then say to yourself: Where am I bleeding? Found a spot? Excellent, go fix it!
Once you’ve staunched that first problem, repeat the exercise and move on to the next. What initially seemed like an intractable, hydra-like mess will soon start being chopped down to size.
Step 3. Make mistakes, once
We’ve all screwed up – some of us more than most! – and there’s nothing the matter with making an honest mistake. Even the simplest, smallest business has so much complexity and uncertainty built in that some type of failure is inevitable along the line.
The question is not: How do I never make a mistake? The question is: How do I not make the same mistake twice?
As you move through the previous two steps, you’ll be facing the snafus your former actions created head-on. It can be a very frustrating process. Don’t get angry, just get it done. But, crucially, once each problem area has been resolved, honestly ask yourself one further question: How do I make sure this doesn’t happen again?
No blame, no finger-pointing or recriminations – either with yourself or others – just have a good think about how you avoid that problem in the future. And write the answer down!
And the big secret? Once you’ve finished Step 3, you get right back to work on Step 1!