“Pivoting” is an example of the “failing properly.” Failure is not the problem. Doing it properly is. A failure that drives a pivot to a new opportunity is one good way. Leadership guru John C. Maxwell offers a prescription and a proscription in his piece “Traits of Successful Failure”…
- Optimism. Find the benefit in every bad experience.
- Responsibility. Change your response to failure by accepting responsibility.
- Resilience. Say goodbye to yesterday.
- Initiative. Take action and face your fear.
And by contrast, the 5 traits of poor failing…
- Comparison. Either measuring your failures against those of others, or convincing yourself that your circumstances were harder than theirs.
- Rationalization. Telling yourself and others that you have good reasons for not getting over past hurts and mistakes. Believing that those who encourage you “just don’t understand.”
- Isolation. Pulling back and keeping yourself separate from others, either to avoid dealing with the issues, or to continue to feel sorry for yourself.
- Regret. Getting stuck lamenting or trying to fix things that cannot be changed.
- Bitterness. Feeling like a victim and blaming others for negative outcomes.
Seth-urday sequel to my Seth birthday post on a concept near and dear to my heart – “The Pivot”. The “Pivot” is not just the most powerful feature of Excel. It is an agility to respond to failure with an adaptation which “pivots” to a new direction. In so doing in business, it exploits one of the most critical concepts in product marketing – “adjacency”. It is the spirit of Scott Adams’ goal-less system focus (“Fail At Almost Everything…”). Or as Seth describes it…
- “A pivot is when a start-up quickly changes from one product to another or from one business model to another. The valley is full of stories about companies that started with a lame idea and hit it big after a pivot. Most start-ups in the valley are software-based, so pivots are both practical and economical. The pivot used to be the exception. For example, a company starts out selling PEZ dispensers online and later pivots to become eBay…[S]uccess in the start-up realm is mostly luck. They discover this by trying great ideas coupled with great execution and failing. And they further discover it by observing unexpected successes at other start-ups. Success simply can’t be predicted to any level of statistical comfort.”
I witnessed this dynamic in my experience at Kenan Systems. The company had focused on decision support systems (DSS) which the founder Kenan Sahin thought would be a big market. But after doing a successful system for a financial company, the customer asked if we could do some systems work on the transactions processing itself. That led to a basic billing system which was eventually sold to phone companies. As it happens, the telephone deregulation and the rise of cellular network created a surging demand for relatively inexpensive billing systems using new computing platforms. It became a huge success (the company sold for $1.5 billion). No business plan ever indicated that the company would grow to massive heights selling billing systems.
The Pivot is needs to take place upon the death of dreams. One must not be devastated by such fatality of fantasies, but be on the alert for those nearby serendipities which generate new dreams. Portfolio workers live and breathe the pivot turning certain skills into a broader range of services and pursuits. My father was my earliest role model in this career pivoting. He went into architecture inspired by the creativity it offered, but when that disappointed, he pivoted into a field more explicitly focused on the creative by teaching literature with the Great Books Foundation. His growing interest in reading, interpreting and sharing insights from great texts led him to the seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Then, the whole career came full circle when he linked his original interest in architecture with his occupation in the clergy to become an author and authority on church architecture.
The concept reminds me of the devout man trapped on the roof of his house by rising flood waters. A man in a row boat came by and told him to get in to be rescued. The man on the stoop said, “no” because he had faith in God and would wait for God to save him. While the waters kept rising, a man in a motor boat came by and told the man on the house to get in because he had come to rescue him. The man in the house said no thank you. He had perfect faith in God and would wait for God to save him. The flood waters kept rising and there was just a small patch of roof left. A helicopter then came by with a rope and told him to grab hold and they would save him. The man told the pilot that he had faith in God and would wait for God to rescue him. The flood waters kept rising and the man on the house eventually drowned. When he got to heaven, he asked God where he went wrong. He told God that he had perfect faith in God, but God had let him drown. God responded, "What more do you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter."
Pivoting is letting go of initial plan of how you will be ‘saved’ and recognizing serendipity when it reveals itself to you.
Seth Godin, this post IS for you. It’s been a while since, I’ve had a “Seth-urday”, so I thought I would mark Seth’s birthday with a post on a topic he returns to regularly – embracing the failure of unanimity. The adage says “you can please all of the people some of the time,” but Seth would dispute that. And even if you could, you probably wouldn’t want to. Here are some choice post excerpts on this subject…
- “For the one person who didn’t get the joke”: “Unanimity is impossible unless you are willing to be invisible. We can be unanimous in our lack of feedback for the invisible one. For everyone else, though, the ability to say, ‘It’s not for you,’ is the foundation for creating something brave and important. You can’t do your best work if you’re always trying to touch the untouchable, or entertain those that refuse to be entertained. ‘It’s not for you.’ This is easy to say and incredibly difficult to do. You don’t have much choice, though, not if you want your work to matter.”
- “Customers who break things”: “2% of your customers don’t get it. They won’t read the instructions, they’ll use the wrong handle, they’ll ignore the warning about using IE6. They will blame you for giving them a virus or will change the recipe even though you ask them not to… If you’re going to be in a mass market business, you have no choice to but to accept that this group exists. And to embrace them. Not to blame them, but to love them. Successful businesses have the resilience to make it easy for them to recover. To make it easy for these people to find you and to blame you and to get the help they need.”
- “The humility of the artist”: “It seems arrogant to say, ‘perhaps this isn’t for you.’ When the critic pans your work, or the prospect hears your offer but doesn’t buy, the artist responds, ‘that’s okay, it’s not for you.’ She doesn’t wheedle or flip-flop or go into high pressure mode. She treats different people differently, understands that she is working to delight the weird, not please the masses, and walks away. Isn’t that arrogant? No. It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it. Our best work can’t possibly appeal to the average masses, only our average work can. Finding the humility to happily walk away from those that don’t get it unlocks our ability to do great work.”
- “Kracos”: “A few hours into the first show, I noticed that some of the people walking by had little creatures on their shoulders. Kraco, the low-cost stereo company, had a huge booth, and they were giving visitors these little stick-on humanoids, made of some sort of wool, to ride along on their shoulder. They were about two-inches high and they looked precisely as ridiculous as you are imagining. I loved this. These people, these lookers, not buyers, were identifying themselves to us from a distance. The little Kraco man on the shoulder meant, ‘I am here to waste your time, I am not a professional, what will you give me that’s free?’ We quickly began identifying anyone with one of these on their shoulder as a Kraco, someone not worth an investment of focus and energy or free stuff. Alas, the Kracos in your world today don’t wear a little man on their shoulder, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. All your prospects are not the same, and if you insist on treating them that way, you will waste your time and your enthusiasm on people who aren’t bringing any to your interaction.”
One of the ways and reasons to embrace the death of dreams is to dream new dreams. The Sunday Times Magazine article by Matt Rudd “Why Didn’t I Just Buy a Porsche” (paywalled) examines an increasingly popular mid-life catharsis – extreme racing.
- “That’s the problem with middle age: you stop getting new boxes to tick. Day in, day out, it’s the same boxes. You can’t just change to a different box, not unless you are one of those cavalier types who enjoys reading leadership books and still wears jeans at your age. For normal people, middle age is a time of growing inelasticity. Age five, you could be anything like astronaut, fireman, town planning advisor, absolutely anything. Age 18, you’re going to be whatever the career planning advisors didn’t advise. Age 28, you have a job, a specific job, but you could still change. You could change whenever you like. And then, quicker than you were expecting, you’re middle aged, you have love for richer, for pooer, of your entire life. You have dependants. You have responsibilities, you have insurmountable debts, you have no new boxes.”
He talks about how crises appear at all times in one’s life. The “quarter-life crisis” (“must jump back out of adulthood temporarily and go back into an adolescent exploratory period”), or the “later life crisis” – (“sixtysomethings”). But they all seem to less acute that the classic afternoon of “midlife” which echoes the observations of India Knight….
- “There is no particular point where you are more likely to have one, although midlife crisis has an archetypal resonance because it has that sense of passing over the brow of the hill…Not the morning, when anything is possible. Not the evening, when you can relax and coast towards Horlicks and bedtime. The afternoon is when it’s too late for fresh ideas and too early to put your feet up.”
It’s not just that one’s perspective on the world changes, but the world itself changes. One of the leading causes of dream death is a shifting environment. One nurtures a dream built on long-held assumptions of doing A and B and C, until it becomes clear that the ABC equation no longer holds or applies.
Seth Godin describes this impact of game-changing technology “Now It’s Ruined”…
- “When technology shows up, it’s easy to imagine that along with the old school becoming obsolete, the new school will be populated by nothing but lazy poseurs. Don’t tell that to Jill Greenberg, Sasha Dichter or Jenny Holzer… all this ending is leading to more and more beginnings, isn’t it? It’s not ruined, it’s merely different.”
Dreams are made to die, but dreaming is eternal.
For many these day, unemployment is not so much a personal thing as a structural thing. Yes, it is handy and inviting to blame politician and economists, the root cause of much labour force dislocation transcends both Republican (legacy) and Democratic (current) policies. My mantra to people embarking on a career these days is “if you want an above average standard of living you have to ask yourself ‘what can I do better than (a) a computer, and (b) a highly motivated Asian’?” By the latter, I am referring to the literally billions of Chinese, Indians and others in southeast Asia whose education, skills, infrastructure and access to the global workforce has rocketed. Forget immigrants ‘taking jobs’. That is a mere distraction of the foreigners taking jobs on a scale much larger through global competition.
The Economist recently examined these issues of disruptive shifts in their article “The American Dream, RIP?”…
- “Could America survive the end of the American Dream? The idea is unthinkable, say political leaders of right and left. Yet it is predicted in ‘Average is Over’, a bracing new book by Tyler Cowen, an economist. Mr Cowen is no stranger to controversy. In 2011 he galvanised Washington with ‘The Great Stagnation’, in which he argued that America has used up the low-hanging fruit of free land, abundant labour and new technologies. His new book suggests that the disruptive effects of automation and ever-cheaper computer power have only just begun to be felt. It describes a future largely stripped of middling jobs and broad prosperity. An elite 10-15% of Americans will have the brains and self-discipline to master tomorrow’s technology and extract profit from it, he speculates. They will enjoy great wealth and stimulating lives. Others will endure stagnant or even falling wages, as employers measure their output with ‘oppressive precision”’.Some will thrive as service-providers to the rich. A few will claw their way into the elite (cheap online education will be a great leveller), bolstering the idea of a ‘hyper-meritocracy’ at work: this ‘will make it easier to ignore those left behind’. Young men will struggle in a labour market that rewards conscientiousness over muscle.
We are already seeing the who-moved-my-cheese scapegoating…
- “Even if only a fraction of Mr Cowen’s vision comes to pass, he is too sanguine about the politics of polarisation. Inter-generational tensions fuelled 1960s unrest and would be back with a vengeance, this time in the form of economic competition for scarce resources. The Middle Ages were stable partly because peasants could not vote; an unhappy modern electorate, by contrast, would be prey to demagogues peddling simple solutions, from xenophobia to soak-the-rich taxes, or harsh, self-defeating crime policies.”
Unfortunately, for too many the “American Dream” is really about privilege. Getting yourself into a group (American residents) you will have special economic real being (relative to others like minorities and women as well as populations in the 2nd and 3rd world). Like so many artefacts of the modern digital age, the enclaves of privilege have broken down broadly (one could argue they have gotten more entrenched for the uber-affluent, but entry into the elite is even harder than American residency ever was).
- “Many voters remember a time when hard work was reliably rewarded with economic security. This was not really true in the 1950s and 60s if you were black or female, but the question still remains: what if Mr Cowen is right?”
So where is the embrace of adversity in this stressful and debilitating challenge. The embrace is in appreciating and respecting the fundamental changes that have happened and responding appropriately with some serious changes and investments (in education, skilling and infrastructure primarily). Not embracing failure is to grasp at one of a couple ersatz solutions: (a) blame, and (b) lingering. Blame is about attacking groups – immigrants, rich, welfare rolls – perceived to have ‘stolen’ the jobs and money. Lingering is about shoring up terminally ill industries and jobs with artificial boosts (eg. bailouts, subsidies, tariff protections, loans). Embracing failure of the economy gone by is about embracing the new opportunities of new industries, new skills and new jobs.
The American Dream is dead. Long live the American Dream.
Wanted “American Dream” – Dead or Alive?
July 4th celebration of all things red, white and blue today and at the heart of all the fireworks is an enthusiasm for the American Dream. With “death of dreams” as a sub-topic to embracing failure, I’ve looked at this question a few times. In typical skeptic style, I present two alternative perspectives.
The first is a report from NBC asserting that Americans doth protest too much titled “American Dream Lives, but Few People Recognize It”…
- “2014 Life Style Study, found that only 40 percent of American adults over the age of 18 believed they were ‘living the American Dream.’ That same 7,015-person study also found that sizable majorities reported owning a home, receiving a good education,’ finding a ‘decent job’ and giving their children better lives than they themselves had. Denise Delahorne, senior vice president at DDB, who worked closely with the survey, theorized that many people do not see themselves as having attained the traditional American Dream because of a shifting definition of the term. ‘If you’re new to this country, then life seems pretty good here,’ Delahorne said. ‘But for many people who have lived here a long time, they’ve started to think of the American Dream less as the traditional elements, and more relative to wealth.’"
On the contrarian side is the piece “Is America experiencing a failure cascade?” (thanks Chris). It’s not well written and sort of a laments American decline, but I include it here not just for thematic consistency, but also for its quite handy taxonomy of “failure cascades”…
- “A cascading failure is a horrific mode of collapse. Engineers describe it as… a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts. Such a failure may happen in many types of systems, including power transmission, computer networking, finance and bridges. Cascading failures usually begin when one part of the system fails. When this happens, nearby nodes must then take up the slack for the failed component. This overloads these nodes, causing them to fail as well, prompting additional nodes to fail in a vicious cycle”
Failure cascades follow a predictable five-stage causal chain:…
- Phase 1: Sustained Adversity – Adversity can take many forms, all of which amount to “bad things happening”. … Rather than relying on shocking incidents, adversity must be sustained and mundane to the point of being banal. … Unglamorous, everyday loss. … Adversity must also be inescapable.
- Phase 2: Failure of Rationalization – Rationalization is a critical psychological defense…It is in this stage of the cascade that the propaganda war takes a deeper significance to all parties.
- Phase 3: Collective Helplessness – Helplessness is a state where a pilot comes to believe that his actions on behalf of the alliance are pointless, impotent, or irrelevant in the face of adversity.
- Phase 4: Change in Pilot Identification – A change in pilot identification is the primary method people use to escape helplessness in a failure cascade.
- Phase 5: Collapse – the collapse of an alliance at the terminus of a failure cascade resembles an avalanche.