It seems that every month of the year has a theme these days.

In some ways this is a good thing, it creates focus on an issue that we cannot sustain over a greater period of time. Perhaps in that month we can move the bar just a little bit. If the theme carries through the next year, maybe you move the bar a little more, maybe it last a few weeks into the next month and so on.

On the other hand, the beard I started in November is still here in February.

Which brings us to the theme of this month, which I have heard from a few sources: Failure.

It’s talked about in business circles, it’s almost cliché.

Yet, very few business know how to do it, recognize it, or recover from it.

One of the reasons I wrote Organization Horsepower, was to give people non-business models or metaphors for performance issues. Of course there’s a whole chapter on failure.

Chapter 17: The Inevitable Crash

Just as there are a million different ways to win a motorcycle race, there are equally as many ways to lose. Business is no different. However, the more catastrophic the failure the more opportunity there is to learn. But we need to be ever mindful of the potential consequences of the risks we take.

There are only two kinds of motorcycle racers, those who have crashed and those who haven’t—yet.

Everyone crashes eventually.

Failure in this respect is not optional.

What is learned from those crashes will largely determine the resilience of the rider and team. No one has ever gotten significantly faster than everyone else without an epic failure of some sort.

This section was inspired by the notion that failure is not optional, it is not completely avoidable, but it can be very valuable as long as we don’t blow off the analysis of those failures. As with most analysis, we need data, but that data needs to be collected in such a way that we can make sense of it. We have to categorize it in a broad enough way that we focus the data we collect.

Low Sides, High Sides, and Off-Track Excursions

As advanced as motorcycles and riders have become, no one has invented a new way to crash nor have we eliminated any single type of crash. We are still crashing exactly the same way we were 100 years ago.

In an elemental sense, all crashes are caused by a loss of traction or the sudden and unmitigated application of traction; all other variations of the crash describe the conditions or severity of the crash.

Business isn’t finding new ways to fail either. Elementally failures in business can be distilled one way or another. Recently a colleague of mine at TiER1 Performance, Eric Lodor, attempted to categorize the types of failures a consulting business like ours can experience:

  • Project (missed deadline, malfunctioning team, over on hours….)
  • Financial (low margin, no margin or failure to maximize margin – failure to capture value)
  • Relationship (failed to establish, maximize or extend our relationships)
  • Account (lost the account, or did not maximize opportunity)
  • Technical (tools not working, huge support load)
  • Delivery (development successful, implementation was not)
  • Impact/Measurement (couldn’t prove ROI)
  • Adoption (built great stuff, nobody used it)
  • HR/Human Capital (wrong role, too many hours, lack of coaching/mentoring)
  • Innovation (missed an opportunity to promote, realize or advance innovation)

I suspect with some additional introspection, we could reduce this list even further, but it’s a good starting point. If we are then able to categorize the type of failure we can then further refine the type of data we want to analyze. Of course not all failures are created equal and some are more or less damaging/useful than others.

The most common of all motorcycle racing crashes is the “low side.” The low side occurs when traction is lost while turning and the side of the motorcycle that is lowest to the ground contacts first. In a low side the motorcycle appears to slide out from beneath the rider, and typically both the rider and bike will slide together on roughly equivalent trajectory for a distance largely dictated by the speed at which the incident occurred.

There is no such thing as a harmless crash, but if you had to choose one, it would be a low side. Low sides tell us physically what the limit is and the cause is almost always that we pushed too far over the line.

Of course with any search for causation, you run into limits. There is a point where it get hard to see the forest through the trees. A point of diminishing return.

Collisions and Racing Incidents

If you race long enough, you’re going to hit someone or someone is going to hit you, or maybe both. Collisions are rarely intentional but the net effect is a crash that will leave you struggling to identify exactly what to learn from the failure. Sometimes things are beyond the rider’s control at least until he’s good enough to remove himself from the potential risk.

In racing a collision is sometimes “written off” as a “racing incident,” a racer’s way of acknowledging that there is risk that increases when two riders are trying to occupy the same place on the track at the same time.

What’s needed is to find and acknowledge the point where the search for a cause exceeds the value of the information potentially gained. That’s not to say we bury our heads in sand, but there always new races and new opportunities to perform better.

I’d love to hear from you on what if anything I’ve shared here strikes a chord with you as you think about #FailFebruary. If you’d like to read more of the book it’s available in print and Kindle editions from Amazon.