Learning to fail properly

Thomas Edison is a great inventor and an important figure in our history. Remarkably, his greatest asset (beyond innovation) was how he viewed failure.

Its been said that in his attempt to create the incandescent light bulb he experienced close to 10,000 failed experiments. Half way through his attempts to innovate this “miracle” light source, the local newspaper decided to write a satirical piece about Mr. Edison in an effort to depict him as the wacky and perhaps senile man whose failures to that point (close to 5,000 failed attempts at the time) have taught him nothing!

The local journalist asks Mr. Edison “After failing to create your incandescent light bulb 5,000 times, at what point will you realize that this innovation is simply an impossibility”

Mr. Edison responds in what perhaps is the most telling statement about his attitude to failure “Oh but you are mistaken Sir, I have not failed 5,000 times for I have discovered 5,000 ways in which the incandescent light bulb does not work!”

To Mr. Edison failure was a critical part of innovation because he viewed his failures as discoveries! They did not discourage him, de-motivate him or cause him to quit – this is evident by the remarkable number of failures he incurred not only in creating the light bulb but in every other innovation he had made from the Electrographic vote recorder, to the motion picture.

Thomas Edison knew how to fail properly. He understood how absolutely essential it was to fail, he accepted it, he embraced it but most of all he made sure that every failure was a stepping stone towards greatest.

We’ve all experienced failure at some point in our lives but the most telling trait about you is how you’ve responded to those failures.

Some of us are so adverse to failure that they are not willing to try anything or risk anything that might lead to failure. “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” J.K. Rowling

I was one of those people, I felt that my life will only be defined by the successes that I gain and soiled by the failures I experience. I soon found myself doing nothing. I was not challenging myself; I was not growing or developing my capabilities. I simply existed day-to-day, taking refuge in my false sense of “success”. The key here is that I was not challenging myself.

To challenge yourself is to grow, and to grow is to fail! This is an inevitable reality, this is what Thomas Edison understood so well, failure is a basic and fundamental ingredient to success.

This principal is so important to understand because it applies to every part of your life both personally and professionally.

I have made a habit out of asking to be assigned to the toughest and hardest projects at work – projects that others were running away from! I can tell you for certain that there have been many times where I experienced failure, but I did not fail, I grew in ways that surprised even myself!

Never give up on yourself, keep pushing, keep battling! It’s not easy but the best things in life never are. You never know, maybe one day you’ll find yourself in the company of Success … but only if you hang on long enough!

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up” Thomas Edison.

Is work something you do, a place you go? Or both?

The answer to this usually depends on who you ask and more importantly, the generation they come from.  I have an example that would explain this relatively well.  There have been many days when my father would call me up in the middle of the day (always around noon so as to coincide with “lunch”) to ask me random questions such as “why did the price of gold plummet today?” or “Cheese is on sale at Costco today, do you want me to buy you 5 kilos worth?”.  The conversation always takes an interesting turn when he finds out that I’m working from home.  He will get noticeably irritated and say “I can’t believe your managers would ever agree to something like this, if you were working for me this would NEVER happen!”  At one point I remember humoring him and asking “What is it about working from home that bothers you?” to which he staunchly explained “how can anybody see what you’re doing?! You can just tell people you’re working from home and watch TV all day, this is non-sense.  Works means having to dress up in the morning, it’s having to pack your lunch, leave early, do your time and come back at 5pm”.

Given that my father is not big on political correctness, you would be surprised at how many people share this view (to some extent) – but why is that?                                                                                        

We know for certain that people’s beliefs and realities are largely shaped by the generations they come from and the experiences they’ve accumulated over the years.  For this reason, we can more or less begin to understand where some of those work philosophies come from, so let’s put the generational aspect aside for this discussion.  I’m more interested in how managers manage, because this plays a critical role in how flexible arrangements are viewed.

 Perhaps you’ve come across some of these managers who are “too busy” to be involved in the day-to-day activities of their employees or don’t necessary track their work performance that closely – except of course once or twice a year when ratings and bonuses have to be issued.  For these managers, the quick and sure-fire way of “managing” is to regulate what I refer to as butt-in-seat time.  Butt-in-Seat time is the amount of time you spend at your work desk or at work.  For these managers, flexibility or “work from home” is viewed as a way for employees to slack-off, or worse “not putting in your hours”.

 The biggest assumption, and worst flaw of this approach is of course – assuming that the time spent in the office is equivalent to productivity.  For an employee who works for a ‘butt-in-seat’ manager the goal is relatively simple, manage your face-time and presence around the office.  This might involve sending emails very early in the morning and late in the afternoon, stroll around the office every so often, have an extended lunch, frequent coffee/smoke breaks or initiate useless banter with colleagues so as to give off the impression that you’ve had a long long day.  The consequence? Performance is not accurately tracked.

 This is not to say that work is not being performed at all, however, the amount of work being produced is simply a fraction of what could be achieved.

 Managers have to be accountable for the performance of their employees, and this means that performance has be the main focus when managing employees.  Where this performance occurs should be irrelevant as long as performance is being achieved!  When managers establish this from the beginning it becomes extremely difficult for employees to get around it and they will begin to manage their performance and become more accountable.  Otherwise, poor performers will be easily identified.

 Consider this, in today’s work environment employees – with relative ease – can fill their entire day/week with “meetings”.  They may claim that they simply don’t have enough time to do anything because they’re in meetings ALL day.  When managers begin to hold people accountable and manage to performance, 360 feedback and goal-based metrics, employees will consciously accept the meetings that they absolutely need to be involved in, while passing on the other “nice-to-know” meetings.

 Flexible work arrangements may help with this, by avoiding commute, reducing casual conversations or chatter, and (depending on where you are) offer an environment free of distractions.  Nevertheless, if the employee is not accountable then such an environment could further aid their lack of productivity, but to a performance focused manager this will be easy to spot.

 Managing to performance through increased accountability maybe too simple in theory – but it works!

 So the next time your employee requests flexible work arrangements or work-from-home opportunities, you might want to consider their performance to-date and assess whether they are being accountable – this may work better than tracking their butt-in-seat time.



For some time now I’ve been debating whether to launch my own blog and the biggest questions i had were 1) what would I say? and 2) who cares? no really, who out there really cares?

I was having this discussion with a colleague of mine and he said (as far as what I’d say) “it has to be something you’re very passionate about, something that makes you get up off your seat to debate” and quiet honestly I didn’t know what that is until I found myself a few minutes later speaking with him about accountability in the workplace.   That word gets such a bad reputation.  For most, accountability is another word for blame, so to ask “who is accountable for this?” is to essentially ask “who can i blame for this?” or “if this thing tanks who’s responsible”?  Notice how the context is always negative?

The result is a work-force that gets starry-eyed every time the question of accountability is brought up and when your work-force shys away from accountability they distance themselves from the end the result.  They become disconnected, and quiet frankly, they stop caring because they don’t want to be responsible for anything “if it goes bad”.

Unfortunately, poor leaders and poor managers are to blame for how this word is used today.

Accountability is meant to inspire ownership, take command, and lead the effort & strategy to create change or impact.  This can only be achieved through collaboration.  Think of the captain on a ship, while he/she is accountable for the ship, he/she engages his/her co-captains, his/her crew and even the boatmen so that he/she can ensure that the ship is safe and on-course.  While it’s possible that we may not succeed in what we are accountable for, nevertheless, we will be in the best position to explain the decisions made and the inputs that were considered to create those decisions.  This in a nutshell is accountability!

If you can get your workforce to start thinking about accountability in this way, you’ll find an immediate improvement in soft areas such morale, team & personal engagement, as well as the technical areas of risk analysis and quality control. 

I am a strong promoter of accountability in everything you do and I have built this blog to talk about the many areas of leadership and project/team management that require a strong sense of accountability.  This is what motivates me, its what gets me up off my seat to debate and I hope it inspires and motivates.