A blueprint for failure

Since I got my first full-time job back in 1999 I’ve worked in many different sectors, in companies both small and large. I’ve worked under great leaders, and been appalled at the behaviour and attitude of others. I’ve been part of big successes, and been unable to prevent failures. 

There are countless books and articles telling us how to be successful - what it takes to win in this new information age - so I thought I’d flip the subject around.  

Here are my rules for making sure your organisation or project fails. 

don’t have a clear strategy 
Strategy remains one of least understood yet most used terms in business. 

Your strategy should be the guiding set of principles that define what your organisation is trying to achieve, where it will operate, and how it believes it can succeed. 

Here are some things that strategy is not:

  1. budgeting - I’ve lost count of the number of “strategic reviews” I’ve sat in that become simply a discussion about financial projections. Financial results are a result of your strategy, not the strategy itself. 
  2. an annual event - it seems absurd to think that any plan made for the year ahead (or beyond!) will remain relevant for long. Whilst your strategic foundation provides overall direction, you must retain flexibility in how that is achieved. Neither disruptive new competitors, new insights or technologies work to an annual timetable - and nor should you. 
  3. out of your control - although it sounds tempting, “following the customer” is not a strategy. It really means “I don’t know what to do, so I’ll wait for someone to tell me”. This reactive approach is, frankly, a cop-out. Don’t follow - lead. Be the organisation that looks forward and tells your customers what’s coming, and what ‘good’ will look like. Then deliver it. 

don’t ask ‘why?’
Thanks to Simon Sinek’s TED talk and book on the importance of ‘why’ in business, there is a new generation of companies emerging with a very clear understanding of their purpose. Conversely, there is now an older generation of firms for whom the question ‘why do you exist’ remains hard to answer. Too often the answer given is “to create long-term value for our shareholders” or some other such nonsense. Hardly a rallying call that inspires.  

rely on the HiPPO
The HiPPO - or Highest Paid Person’s Opinion - can be toxic to the culture of innovation, debate and growth that most organisations desire. Of course, ultimately someone has to make the call on difficult decisions. That person is not necessarily the one paid the most, or who sits highest up the organisation chart. Find a way to give those who know your customers or products best a voice. Use data to provide insight. Invite debate and challenge. Accept sometimes that you don’t know best, and that you can get things wrong. 

shoot the messenger
All too often the bearer of bad news - whoever is responsible for it - gets blamed for it.  As a leader you need to know what’s really going on, so don’t punish those who tell you. Make it easy for information and insight to get to you - don’t rely only your immediate management team but reach out, and - most importantly - listen. 

don’t invest in the future
In tough economic times, when budgets are limited and shareholders are nervous, it can be difficult to justify investing in new products or services whose outcomes are uncertain, or even hard to quantify. However, if you don’t invest in innovation who will? Your competition? New entrants? Your customers? The best way to stay ahead is to be the organisation pushing the boundaries and driving the agenda in your sector. Don’t wait to be disrupted - look for disruptive opportunities and make them your own. 

obsess over detailed business plans for new projects
Paper plans aren’t as useful as real data and customer feedback. Encourage lean-inspired experimentation and learning to gather real data and insight.

don’t tolerate failure
Things go wrong - not every risk can be controlled, people make mistakes. Learn from failure, and don’t write people off unnecessarily. Wring every ounce of useful insight from mistakes and failures, and use it to improve. 

don’t let your people learn
Think wider about what ‘learning’ can mean to your organisation.  The broader your team’s knowledge the more likely they are to see opportunities, to generate new ideas, and to develop and grow into future leaders. 

focus on the micro- and ignore the macro- risks 
It’s easy to spend your time focussing on the small risks that you understand and can manage, ignoring the bigger risks and trends that are less clear and yet far more likely to disrupt your organisation. Don’t be the next Kodak. 

ignore your organisation’s values when it suits you 
If you don’t consider your organisation’s values when making decisions, then you can’t expect your staff too either. If they don’t, your customers will know and your reputation will suffer accordingly. Your values should not be a marketing play - they should be obvious from your actions. Live and act by the code you establish, and be seen doing it.  

So there you have it - my blueprint for failure. Chances are some of these are evident in your organisation - you may even recognise some of these behaviours in yourself…