A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
November 7th, 2013 by William

If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail

Benjamin Franklin supposedly once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Sir Winston Churchill is credited with another, oft repeated, saying: “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” And along that same vein there’s the phrase we hear often in the workplace, “learn from your mistakes.”

Thomas A. Edison once said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That advice makes for a catchy quote but little else because I’m not convinced that that’s the mind-set in which we should approach “learning from the past.” By concentrating on your past failures you are doing little better than “planning to fail.”

Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals, and author of the New York Times bestselling book Rework provides us a new perspective on that “learn from your mistakes” quip. He tells us, “You’ve heard it over and over: “Learn from your mistakes.” Or maybe you’ve heard “fail early and often.” There are plenty of catchy quotes about failure. Most of them end with a clever little twist that makes it sound like it’s a good thing. Is it?

“I don’t understand the cultural fascination with failure being the source of great lessons to be learned. What did you learn? You learned what didn’t work. Now you won’t make the same mistake twice, but you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time. You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

“If you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses−the lessons learned from doing something right will provide a better chance of continuing your success. What have you done right? What worked? Why did it work? How you can repeat it? Instead of making something worse a little better, how about making something good a little better? Don’t spend so much time looking down. Look up more.”

His take away is that there’s a significant difference between ‘now I know what to do again’ and ‘now I know what NOT to do again’−the former being better than the latter.

What Fried is pointing out is that, “Everything is a learning experience.” Good or bad, there’s something to be learned.” But I would also agree with him that all learning isn’t equal, i.e., there’s a big difference between understanding what you did wrong v. what you did right.

Everywhere I’ve ever worked in my career, management has been obsessed with trying to understand what has failed in the past. They hold lessons-learned studies on every project that didn’t turn out as expected−none on the projects that went to plan, albeit they were usually the minority. Even so, these “inquisitions” were usually focused on trying to find a person, or group of persons, that can be “held accountable,” or more appropriately “blamed,” instead of actually learning anything. I can’t remember ever participating in a committee that was charged with studying a successful project to discover “what did we do differently here that contributed to success?” Have you?

Herein we find a major problem with today’s management mind-set−this obsession with what went wrong in the past. It’s the underlying theory for the whole performance review industry. Here’s how the process works: Let’s rehash, in a once a year goat-rope, all the things someone didn’t do right, and sprinkle in a subjective assessment of all the person’s shortcomings in the skills needed to do their job, all the while conducting the “review” under the guise of somehow “motivating” that person to plan to do better next year.

I don’t know about you but that’s not “motivating” in any way, shape, or form and it certainly never taught me how to do things “right.” Of course we all know that the true reason for the performance review process is to use that negative, failure focused assessment, as a justification to give mediocre raises. But that’s a subject for another day.

Unfortunately that “focus on past failure” premise that drives the performance review process doesn’t stop there. Most organizations are thoroughly convinced that the best way to succeed is by obsessing on past failures. As an aside, I find this ironic at best because if anyone in the organization were to obsess, and voice their opinions, about the failings of the organization (as management does) they’d be labeled a recalcitrant, a cynic, or sarcastic, and would be quickly purged from the organization. And to add further irony, management would use the performance review process to justify eliminating that person.

Alas, even if lessons-learned exercises were to focus strictly on past success I’m sure that another age-old business problem would rear its ugly head. Organizational amnesia would set in and make sure the “lessons are not learned.”

So that Benjamin Franklin quote from the beginning of this post should be re-written to say: “If you fail to plan for success, you are planning to fail.” This is the new mind-set that needs to be cemented into today’s business mind-set. If we focus on the successes of the past, both at the organizational level, and personal level, we will all learn how to “plan for success” and maybe organizational amnesia wouldn’t be able to gain a foothold.


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