Redefine failure

– a New View on 2020, Part III

by Whitney Johnson

Almost everyone had failures in 2020, writes Whitney Johnson, CEO of consultancy group WLJ Advisors.

“Whether we see an experience as a failure or success is a choice. It is always a choice.”

For the past two weeks we have been looking at how to reframe the negative experiences of 2020, letting the lessons learned mold and shape us, our teams and our entire organizations. Yet, here we are, barely three weeks into 2021 and the uncertainty continues. I find myself realizing this skill, this ability to ride and master the wave of disruption, is more crucial than ever.

The world will continue to be unpredictable, learning how to effectively navigate and leverage disruption will help us thrive, regardless of the circumstances. To do this, we put our past experiences and focus moving forward, through the Personal Disruption Framework™ from the S Curve of Learning™.

This week, we continue the work of reframing, by looking at Guardrails #5, #6, & #7.

Personal disruption framework

 Guardrail #5: Step Back to Grow

How did you step back to grow?

What happened when you took a step back and had to learn to work remotely full time? Or had to guide and support your children in remote learning? How did you handle having to care for a loved one who was suffering from COVID? What happened when you weren’t traveling? Did you take time to reflect and wonder

“A shift in my management behaviuor turned out to be MUCH easier than I thought…”

When I presented this question to Davis Smith, Founder & CEO of Cotopaxi, a start-up outdoor apparel company that donates 1% of its revenue to address poverty and support community development, this was his reply, “I was thinking I needed to hire a president to help me build our company. Then COVID hit. I was no longer faced with external distractions and started paying more attention to what my team needed.”

He continued, “A shift in my management behaviour turned out to be MUCH easier than I thought, and it transformed the way I lead. In the first month of the pandemic our revenue was cut in half, but through creativity, leadership, and adaptability, our team has found ways to thrive, seeing meaningful growth this year, despite the pandemic.”

Davis stepped back, looked at his business through a new lens, and grew in unexpected ways.

How has stepping back (or being pushed) back allowed you to grow? How has this benefitted your team and your organization?

Guardrail #6: Give Failure it’s Due.

It’s possible to learn more from failure than from success. Almost everyone had failures in 2020––some big, some small. 

When I spoke to Jason Licht, General Manager of the American football team Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he said he had to adapt to using video call technology—like most of us did.

Jason shared a story about how during a key Zoom meeting with the U.S. National Football League, he turned to yell at his kids that were calling for him. His microphone was not on mute like he thought it was. “When I got back to the desk, everyone at the League was laughing [hysterically].”

He could have been embarrassed but instead, he laughed with them. And, by learning what he didn’t know, during the actual draft, which was done virtually for the first time, Jason had several backups in place––just in case the ‘mute’ button wasn’t working.

Whether we see an experience as a failure or success is a choice. It is always a choice. What kind of grace did you give yourself this year that you may not have given in the past when it comes to failure? How can you extend that ‘grace period’ in 2021? How will that benefit your colleagues and your organization?

Guardrail #7: Be Discovery Driven

A lot of us (ok, all of us) had our plans interrupted because of COVID. And so far, it seems the interruption will continue into the foreseeable future. The question is then, how are we willing to be discovery driven? Are we taking time to get feedback from what has, and continues, to happen?

“This is not happening to us, but for us.”

This was the case for Naomi Bagdonas, Lecturer in Management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Dr. Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. They are the co-authors of the forthcoming book Humor, Seriously which has not yet been published because among other challenges, there is a paper shortage that is affecting book printing.

The delay, like many delays in business, posed significant challenges. But the two authors chose to see those challenges from a positive perspective. Naomi explained, “At each turn, we took a hard look at the feedback, setback, or limiting belief and thought, ‘This is not happening to us, but for us. It’s the perfect gift; now we just need to discover how to use it!’”

They saw that the people were struggling and needed laughter more than ever. So, they donated as many books to as many people as possible through various charities.

They listened to the feedback and made positive choices when facing new challenges.

What did you do with the feedback you received in 2020 and continue to receive today? How are you adapting? How will your course be different in 2021 because of these discoveries? What about the course of your organization?

“Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty.” Brian Greene

Disruption will continue, of that I am certain. Where and when it occurs, if it is of our own doing or imposed upon us – is less clear. I choose to focus on what I can control and sharing The Personal Disruption Framework™ with all of you, is my way of helping you do the same. We can leverage the power of disruption to propel us, our teams and our organizations into stronger, more resilient versions of ourselves.

Over the past three weeks we’ve provided the structure that can help you do this, help you put 2020 – and the challenges you face moving forward – into new light. Just by going through this exercise and reframing 2020 into a year of learning, which – let’s be honest – is not the easiest thing to do, you have already disrupted yourself.