Tag Archives: Failure

Get me 200 rejections and let’s talk…

My wife and I were recently discussing an interesting initiative with our son. He and his friends have this big, bold and really audacious idea about including children and young citizens under the age of eighteen into the governance process even though they are not allowed to cast their “vote” – after all, why should the democracy be reserved only for the voting class? Just because they can’t vote, none of the political parties even acknowledge their ‘presence’, much less engage with them for a dialog (never mind that at 44%, they constitute our largest ‘minority’). The worst part – they will grow up to be the newest voters without any awareness whatsoever into the political process! This year alone, we added 100 million first-time voters, and yet, as a country, we have no mechanism to tap them young, and engage with them into the nation-building process. Their idea has a merit, for our country has 500 million citizens under the age of 18, and very aptly, they call it “18minus“.

They are currently working on how to take their idea forward, and have come up with a bunch of ideas, and some of them have good merit while some of them seemed to be populist measures – stuff that might get you a headline in a city daily but might not take them closer to the goal. While letting them figure out what’s best for them, I was urging him to think really B-I-G, when I ended up blurting –

“Get me 200 rejections and let’s talk…”

After I said it, I started thinking the meaning of what I just said, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. Here are some self-conversations on it:

Rejection means you are thinking new. Nothing new here, but sadly, we still ignore this basic tenet. Quite often, we take a self-serving initial hypothesis that very closely matches our own ideas about the world, and test it inside familiar territory (friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc.) and if it succeeds, we end up blissfully believing that we now have external validation to our idea, so let’s proceed with it. In our hearts, we badly want that validation, thatsocial approval to go ahead and chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Getting a rejection is not only a heartbreak event, it also potentially jeopardizes our relationship with those closest to us (and that very thought perhaps either stops us from sharing highly contentious ideas with them, or them sharing their true feedback on our idea?).

Rejection wins when you accept it!

Rejection wins when you accept it!

However, when you are thinking really big, something radically different, something totally new to the world, anything other than a rejection only means you are simply doing a linear thinking. If people wholeheartedly (or even partially) say yes to your idea, it only means what you are telling them matches their existing mental models, and hence they believe that might be a good idea. It is also very likely that there might be many more already thinking on similar lines.

Repeated rejections are awesome! In a random sample of respondents, there will always be a mixed bag of opinions about your idea. However, if you are thinking really big, you are more likely to hear a resounding NO from just about everyone. Suppose you hear the first NO, what do you do? You probably ‘listen’ to that feedback and ‘adapt’ your idea to suit what people might be looking for – you basically try to conform to what people expect. So, the next time, you are more likely to get a feeble YES than a strong NO. You keep iterating till you come to the point when there is a resounding YES to your idea and that’s when you’ve hit home run. However, what happened to your big bold audacious idea in that process? You probably twisted and adapted it so many times that what you are now serving is what people are comfortable with. In short, you are matching their thoughts.

But what if you want to change their thinking, or show them a vision so radical, they can’t even imagine it in their dreams? As Charles Kettering said “Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success“.

What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger. If you actually go out and talk to 200 people and don’t give up, not only your own story will get much cleaner, your own conviction about the idea will be sky-high. So, if you are still standing tall after those 200 rejections, then boy, do you have something in you – apart from the idea! If not for anything else, just go out and make those 200 naysayers eat crow…

Vincent van Gogh painted 800 paintings, but sold only one during his lifetime (that too, to a friend), Walt Disney was rejected 302 times, Col Sanders was rejected 1009 times for his famous secret chicken recipe, JK Rowling was rejected 12 times…the list simply goes on…What if any of them had decided to stop pursuing their ideas at the first, or second or the third rejection, or worse still – adapted their ideas to the feedback? As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

Finally, don’t ‘think’ to please others! If the only reason you ‘think’ is so that you could think along what others are thinking, you might as well not think at all! Life is too precious to be lived in ‘more of same’ format.

Now, what are you thinking? Are you thinking what I think you are thinking?

What can we learn from CAT’s failures ?

 (This plog post is contributed by Lt Col (Retd) Rahul Kumar, Managing Director of Srijan Consulting, Bangalore. In this post, he analyses recent failure of the Common Admission Test (CAT) conducted by the premier B-schools of India, the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), and raises key questions on how one should have done adequate planning, thorough testing, backup planning and then some more! You can write to him at rk@srijanconsulting.com)

The Business Management Gurus had a PLAN – to go online for CAT. And do I hear that this was all that was required? PLANNING was ZERO!


Plans are Nothing – Planning is Everything – Dwight D. Eisenhower


Surely the top most Management Institute of the country would be teaching this day in and day out to the numerous batches passed out till 30 Nov 2009!

The difference in the teaching which they should realize now – better late than never – is that there is a world of a difference in “teachings in class rooms” and “situation on ground”!

Responsibility – The recent failure of CAT has thrown up a big question mark as to how the prime institute of Management defaulted. It’s easy to pass the blame on the conducting organisation. Agreed that the conducting organisation is the executive arm but the responsibility rests with the management. Just by allotting the responsibility to someone else and hoping that everything will be fine is not a management rule!

Load Testing – The management of the institute should have monitored the progress, carried out a hundred dry runs on the systems? Simulation of a number of students undertaking the test simultaneously should have been done – This is known as Load Testing!? I remember after setting up the best ever technical infrastructure at Digital (now HP) back office in Bangalore when we proudly placed our credentials for picking up the business from HP-US, the first question from their Head of Call Center shot out was – “HP will have a 24 hrs load testing on the infrastructure?” I confidently welcomed it and subsequently conducted the same accepting a large number of simulated calls (a few thousand) simultaneously, switching off the mains and checking for back up power, plugging out the IPLC (International Private Leased Circuit)  and noting the call breaks if any, recording the wait time of the calls before they are attended and so on. It’s a different matter that the infrastructure came out absolutely error free and we got the business but what learning we carried along was that the ONLY way to ensure 100% reliability is to actually take the process through a number of times with equal or larger volumes than expected.

Approval for Battle Readiness – How was the ‘all clear’ report from the vendor accepted? Who from the conducting authorities checked the same? Did they physically go through the process? Were mock runs conducted and the management satisfied with the Infrastructure in place?

Efficiency Check – It is said that the “efficiency of a machine is inversely proportional to the number of people watching it!” CAT is being watched by world over apart from the few lacs that experience it. Shouldn’t someone have checked the efficiency of this system? It’s prudent not only to have a working system but an efficient system.

Check Back – In the forces we give a command to our troops. It is essential to “check back” as to what they have understood. Was there any process of check back with the vendor?  If so what were the parameters and the process defined in it? A mere verbal assurance is not the management game – at least not what is taught!   

Back up Plan – Failures are a part and parcel of life. While accepting the same, one needs to have an alternative plan in order to have 100% success. What was the back up plan? The management lesson says that the back up has to be as robust as the original. Failing twice will not be accepted. One needs to carry out similar tests on the back up plan also. Did anyone check on the back up plan? When and who orders to switch to back up plan? Three days down on CAT and still the problem continues.

Once Bitten Twice Shy – We have only seen the execution part of CAT. Learning from the experience the authorities need to be extra careful in ensuring that the selection of questions from the question bank is as per the design and error free. Management needs to check and recheck a thousand times. 

Finally – the evaluation. It’s a question of make or break for many. Each appearance for the candidate is critical and hence a foolproof software which is tested a hundred times. One may even consider it cross checking manually – at least for the first time and also since one goof up has already taken place.

Wake Up Call – Its time that our Management Institutes wake up to the realty and link it’s teaching to on ground work. Foreign institutes are not fools to have the obligatory requirement for students to have at least 4 / 5 yrs experience before they plunge into this course. Ground realty is different than classroom! How will the product of such institute who fails to execute a process sell in the market?

It’s hard to believe that this was a show from the Indian Institutes of Management – or should we say Indian Institute of Mis-Management?

03 Dec 09 

Why are more projects failing ?

Standish Group just came out with 2009 edition of their famous CHAOS Report: (text highlighting and underlining is mine)

“Boston, Massachusetts, April 23, 2009 – New Standish Group report shows more project failing and less successful projects.

The Standish Group’s just-released report, “CHAOS Summary 2009,” “This year’s results show a marked decrease in project success rates, with 32% of all projects succeeding which are delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions” says Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group, “44% were challenged which are late, over budget, and/or with less than the required features and functions and 24% failed which are cancelled prior to completion or delivered and never used.”

“These numbers represent a downtick in the success rates from the previous study, as well as a significant increase in the number of failures”, says Jim Crear, Standish Group CIO, “They are low point in the last five study periods. This year’s results represent the highest failure rate in over a decade“.

This seems to be quite an anti-progress and is highly discouraging to say the least. The timing of the report itself couldn’t have been any more worse – with current economic situation, not too many dollars are available for projects, and whatever dollars are there, don’t seem to be getting a good mileage. I have not read the report yet, but I am eager to learn why the failure rates have shot up once again. In the last decade, we have certainly improved our ability to manage projects (or so we thought), have migrated to supposedly-better methods, have more virtual projects, more multi-site work, etc. In terms of tools, we probably are sitting on a pile of tools. When it comes to people, we probably have the highest number of professionally qualified and experienced managers than ever before. So, is it that newer challenges have caught up with our current capabilities ? Are these failures primaily because of offshore  work, or virtual teams, or expectations of Web-based projects, or something much more fundamental to a project…the people ??? Either ways, it promises to be a great eye-opener, and I am as eager as you to explore this study further.

Study apart, do you also think project failure rates have shot up in the last 5-10 years ?

Why are more projects failing ?

Art Fry shares views on Failure…

In  my previous post When are you planning to fail ?, I argued that early failures were a far more effective learning tool than early successes. Those ‘gentle failures’ could help you avoid, or at least minimize the chances of ‘grand failures’.

My colleague from PMI NPDSIG, Kimberly Johnson, shared that post with some of her ex-colleagues (Thanks Kim !), including Art Fry, inventor of perhaps most-well-known office product, Post-It Notes.  Here is what he wrote back:

“Good article, Kim. In most product development programs you must consider dealing with failure, because only one in 3000 to 5000 raw ideas become a success. So the question is, How do you check out the failures as quickly and inexpensively as possible?

One technique we have used with brainstorming sessions is to first brainstorm for the good ideas. This can be an individual or group effort. After a day of incubation, come back and brainstorm the barriers to success for those ideas. On day 3, Brainstorm the ways around those barriers. Sometimes a program that didn’t look so good at the start, turns out to have the most promising path. It is amazing how much time it can save in a program with a lot less cost than charging ahead with unchecked enthusiasm. Action without thinking is the cause of most failure.



He sent one more viewpoint:

“One more thought. Why would people want to work on new things, if most of their work is going to lead to failure? The good news is that when one of the individual’s ideas does find a successful path, it requires the help of a lot of people who have the satisfaction of building something successful. It is like hitting a good drive on the 18th hole. It keeps you coming back.



It is indeed great to have Art’s views on this highly underrecognized subject (in my view, at least). Art raises a very pertinent question: when the success rates are as low as just about 1 in 3,000 to 5,000, what is it that keep people going on and on and on ? Surely, large organizations could fund ideas in various stage of a concept-to-realization pipeline (that is, starting from thousands of raw ideas to finally the ones that will get productionized and are expected to be released on a commercial basis) even though they also need to count their R&D dollars (very carefully, I must add !), more so in these tough economic times. In the startup world, there is Darwin again at work – it is perhaps the democracy at its best that the strongest ideas stand up to various survival tests and eventually make it big. However, what is it that keeps people pushing at their ideas, day after day, week after week and year after year – just based on the strength of conviction about their ideas ? Are those ideas winners by themselves (i.e., genetically endowed), or is it the tireless efforts of those individuals that bakes those ideas to be a winner (i.e., genetically engineered) ?

Another colleague of Kim, Wayne wrote back:

“This conversation reminded me of the question Russ Ackoff posed to me when he came to town to speak for a day about 10 years ago . . .
Russ asked “Is it true what I hear about 3M that you give an annual award for the Biggest Failure to reinforce it is OK to fail?”  
Russ will always be a hero of mine for his insight into systems . . . see his wikipedia summary at this link –>

Wow…wouldn’t that be splendid to be awarded the “Most Promising Failure of the Year” or some such ‘recognition’. I think it is a valuable (and rare perhaps ?) skill to be able to ‘smell’ failures from miles away. Imagine the power of an action that helps a company move out of random choas and uncertain future into a clear direction. I think Performance Management Systems are overdue for a big overhaul, for they glorify and celebrate achievement-orientation and happy endings. I would really love to hear back about an appraisal system that actually places premium on intelligent failures as opposed to run-of-the-mill non-consequential routine ‘successes’.

Failure is the new Success. Do you care ?

When are you planning to fail ?

Yes, you read it right…when are you planning to fail ?

In the world where insatiable hunger for ‘success’ is an obsessive-complusive disorder (OCD), we don’t think of ‘failure’ much. It is shunned, scoffed at, systematically eliminated (or mitigated, at least), avoided, bypassed, ignored….everything but embraced with open mind and open arms. All management ideas are directed towards the age-old wisdom of “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” and not on something like…”what won’t kill you only makes you stronger”. All project management philosophies are centred around safeguarding the projects from any possible failures…but has that stopped projects from grand failures? Every risk management action is towards making the project safe from failing…and yet we still see so many projects biting the dust, struggling for survival. Failure appears to be a social embarrassment that is best avoided at dinner table conversations. New-age enterpreunership, especially in Internet world, has helped a lot to eliminate the stigma that eventually comes with people associated with any well-known failure, but in everyday lives, we still continue to play safe, rather extremely safe. Of course, I am not talking about breaking the law and driving without seat-belts on or driving in the middle of the road jeopardizing everyone’s life. I am talking about thinking like Fosbury and challenging the established way a high jump is done – even at the risk of failing because what you are about to propose hasn’t been tested and certified to succeed. I am talking about taking those small daily gambles that strenghten you when they fail. I am not interested in those small daily gambles that are supposed to strenghten you if they succeed – honestly, they don’t teach you anything. In fact, those small successes might limit your ability to reach for higher skies because you remain contended by those sweet-smelling early successes. In my view, people who don’t want to risk gentle failures must prepare themselves for grand failure !

The word ‘fail’ is such a four-letter word that is evokes very strong emotional responses. In an achievement-oriented society and success-intoxicated corporate culture, fear of failure drives people to seek safer havens. When choosing what subjects to take in college, we ‘force’ our children to take the ‘safest’ subjects – they are the subjects that have maximum job potential ensure maximum longevity in job market. (I agree that ‘force’ is not the right word here, but it is not in its literal sense that I use this word here. The ‘force’ can come from parental expectations, societal pressure, peer pressure, ‘coolnees’ of a job, perks of the job, etc.). Traditionally, they have been Engineering and Medicine and anything else that ensured a government job (in India, and I am sure every country has had its own fixations at different times). So, the foundation to seek safety from failure gets laid right at the start of one’s career (well, in my view it is erected right after birth and we are still curing it by the time we start our careers, but that’s for another blog post). After graduating, there is once again a massive derisking operation: find some company that has a ‘big’ name (even if one is doing a fairly mechanical job there). Basically, trade any hopes or ambitions to do something new and creative in life with rock-solid jobb safety in a mundane assignment! As a rookie, you then become a link in this enormous chain where your job is dictated by the volumes of SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) that trade your urge to experiment / innovate with a higher ‘percieved’ safety of the given process. The logic being: this is the way we know it has been done before, and since it worked the last time, we expect it will always work and hence this is the standard procedure. Wow !

You then become a manager and have to now run a project. You have the ‘process police’ breathing down your neck challenging every single thought, let alone a decision, to deviate from those SOPs. You want to try an innovative recruitment…no, that is too risky. Why not first prototype this sub-system…no, the finance won’t allow that because we can’t bill the customer since nothing tangible has been delivered. How about a 200% make-or-break bonus for this team that is up against Mission Impossible….no way ! we will have mutiny in other projects. How about this….and how about that… Finally you give up and give in…and the project somehow starts. Most optimizations, if any, have been seriously watered down by now, and are highly local at best. The result is predictable – no substantial improvement from the previous project, at best, and an utter fiasco, at worst.

Let’s pause for a moment and quickly run through the script here. We are taking every beaten path that has individually been successful in the past (or so we have been told), and yet there is no guarantee of success in its next run. In each of these situations, the project manager faces the music – after all, the process did work the last time and if it is not working this time, this must be a capability issue (or, even worse, attitude issue) with the manager. Being at short end of the stick and facing an imminent loss of professional credibility, the manager pushes his team to burn themselves over really late evenings and long weekends and somehow gets past the finish line…but not before incurring emotional and professional scars, not before pruning down some of the original features, not without some ‘known’ bugs in the release and definitely not before going way above the original budget.

What went wrong ? We did everything to prevent ‘failure’ but we still failed to deliver a decent product on-time, within budget (even if overtime is unpaid, it still means shooting out of the budget), blah, blah, blah …???

This is what went wrong – in order to safeguard our project from any (all?) possible failures, we fortified the project. We poured money like water to avoid being mousetrapped. We used innovative processes that allowed us to take baby steps and gain early successes. Those early successes, after all, helped us validate our assumptions and only then did we go all out. And yet? In this process of scaffolding the project, we actually erected artificial life-support systems to make the project stand on its feet. Most assumptions were then tested in isolation for its validity under ‘standard test conditions’. Unfortunately, those early successes gave a false illusion that everything was fine, even though several of the chinks in the armor were not fully exposed. Absence of ‘gentle failures’ early in the project lifecycle ensured that the team thought they were on rock-solid footing. However, in reality, we could never fully guarantee that, especially when those early cycles were done with the intent to make something work and not make something fail ! Imagine you were testing a tool to detect landmines. To do acceptance testing of the equipment, you operate it under ‘specified test conditions’ and accept it. However, the enemy won’t lay mines under those very standard test conditions! Chances are extremely high that enemy’s plan will fail your equipment. I am only asking you to fail it yourself before someone else does it for you.

Here is something you might want to do on your next project. Identify all possible and potential ‘points of failure’ in the project (there are always more than one). Challenge everything and everyplace where Mr. Murphy can strike. Design the project plan to fail, fail softly, fail early and fail as often as required to ensure there is no grand failure (or at least a significantly lower chances of a grand failure). Design your test criteria such that success is measured by how many of those assumptions have failed. Cull out important lessons from those failures and now build your project plan to avoid grand failures. Of course, you won’t completely eliminate grand failures, but will have moved a couple of steps closer to avoid them or minimize their impact compared to what an early success approach would have given you.

So…when are you planning to fail ?