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Why Are We Committed To Failure?

by David Brock on July 3rd, 2019

Regular readers might be a little worried with many of my recent posts. I’m obsessed with the idea of failure. You can imagine the “uplifting” conversations I have at lunch or with colleagues on failure.

It’s not driven by any sort of negative outlook, premonitions of “doom and gloom,” or a closed mindset. In reality, it’s quite the opposite, it’s driven by extreme optimism and hope. We will never eliminate failure, but if we can better understand it and why we fail, we can discover more opportunities to succeed.

I’m trying to better understand the mechanisms for failure. What causes us to fail, both individually and organizationally? How do we identify them and start to eliminate them?

Let me start with a couple of premises:

  1. Largely, in sales, we know “what” we should be doing. For example, we know we should be creating value, we should be customer focused, we have to keep quality pipelines, we have to prospect, and so forth.
  2. Largely we know “how” to do the things that cause us to succeed. We spend billions each year on training, tools, content, programs, books, seminars, listening to “gurus.” Each telling us how to do the things we know we should be doing.

If we know what to do and how to do it, why do we so consistently fail in doing those things?

Before I go further, failure is not unique to sales. At an individual level, all we have to do is look at our obsession with New Year’s resolutions, exercising, eating healthy, and so forth. As individuals we aspire to do better, but struggle to do so. Why else would the “self help category” be so popular in Amazon and book stores?

Organizationally, we see failure often. If you are a Silicon Valley start up entrepreneur, failure is part of the entrepreneurial secret handshake. It makes you part of the club–as long as you have a wild success. We see in in our product design/development/launches. We see it in quality and manufacturing issues, we see it in customer experience, and other areas.

Usually, in those other parts of the organization, they analyze failure carefully, trying to understand what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future.

But the failure modes in sales (and marketing) are so much higher than in many other functions.

But I digress, it seems we should be doing much better at answering the question, “If we know what we should be doing, and how to do it, what keeps us, so consistently, from doing those things?”

Thinking out loud, there are individual and organizational mechanisms around failure.

Individually, I think much of it has to do with fear and habit formation. There’s a lot written about this, and as individuals, we have to look at and understand this.

Organizationally, there are similar mechanisms, perhaps compounded by just the sheer number of people involved and the pace of change. But I think there is a mechanism, organizationally, that is different and much more helpful to understanding and reducing failure.

I think the fact that “we are not alone,” is terribly important in overall organizational change and addressing failure.

If you look at much of the advice for individual habit formation, it centers around building reinforcement by not being alone. For example, accountability partners, or joining an exercise class, not just getting a gym membership. There are endless support groups and other kinds of things individuals leverage to overcome their fears and reinforce great habits.

I think similar mechanisms are at play organizationally, and perhaps it’s our inattention to those mechanisms that cause us to fail.

For example, we spend billions in training sales people, at the end of a workshop/training session, declare success, saying “Go forth and execute.” Yet we fail to implement the reinforcement and coaching mechanisms that drive organizational “habit formation.”

Often, we fail to engage the organization in aligning around change, the what, how, and more importantly, why. While the message has been communicated, we fail to address the “we are not alone,” aspect of it. People don’t understand, they struggle to internalize, they are afraid and they don’t have mechanisms other than whispering to their colleagues about their concerns. This becomes a leadership issue around change management and helping understand and manage fear.

Individually and organizationally, the concept of commitment, which is tightly tied to fear is a challenge. Again, I think the idea of “we are not alone,” is an important aspect of reinforcing commitment and conquering fear.

There are some underlying concepts around personal mastery, shared vision, shared learning, creating learning organizations that help us more effectively address these issues that keep us from moving forward. (If you think this sounds familiar, it should, all of this comes from Peter Senge’s work.

I’m not sure that addressing these issues enables us to fail less, but I’m certain they enable us to fail differently.

Instead of knowing what to do and how to do it, but failing to do so. We can put that behind us, but focus on what we might be doing, what we might change, how we grow, achieve and outperform.

But we have to start with the here and now. If we know what we should be doing and how to do it, how do we actually start doing those things more consistently?

I’m looking forward to your ideas and conversation, either hear, on the phone, on the social platforms. It’s an important issue, we won’t solve it, but we can make a big dent in it!

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