Failure is indeed possible. So what?

Not to be a total bummer, but there are, really, so many ways to fail.

  • We might fail if we’ve misunderstood something important about the outside world.
  • We might fail if we’re wrong about our basic ideas about how we are going to be successful.
  • We might fail if we’re wrong about how to get the idea done.
  • We might fail if we’re ineffective in getting it done – if our execution just doesn’t happen.

In really complex operations, managers may use a Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) – this is a tool that can be quite complex, analyzing every possible way that a given operation might fail. It can go on for pages and pages and pages, reflecting the underlying complexity of the operations it’s analyzing.

Most of us don’t need to go to this level of detail on most of our decisions. But most organizations don’t do much analysis at all of whether they might fail at a strategic level. (They might do risk management, but in my experience that tends to be a fairly operational discussion.)

Why is that?

We often hear imperatives: that “failure is not an option.” This idea might work as a motivational strategy under terrific pressures (link goes to a video) but hope is not a strategy, either. Artificially raising the stakes (removing any discussability of the possibility of failure) doesn’t remove the actual risk. It just means that we won’t talk about how to prevent failure.

We’ll never get rid of serious risk entirely, nor would we want to. It’s more important to take on the risk we think is worthwhile, and get good at managing it. You could argue that’s the main thing we all do to add value.

What are some good practices in terms of thinking about failure, or the potential for failure?

Take a look at your strategy – go through each element of your strategy and, for each one, ask: what if we’re wrong? What if we can’t get this done? What if we DO get it done and it doesn’t do anything to help us? (If you don’t know how you’ll know that, you need to look at metrics.)

A couple of things might happen as a result of doing this analysis.

First, you might uncover strategies that actually aren’t strategies at all – but are just words that sound nice. If reversing them isn’t imaginable or creates a truly nonsensical sentence, then they aren’t anything real. Strategies should represent clear choices among alternatives. So we should be able to imagine, OK, what if we had made a different choice?

So let’s say your strategies turn out to represent real choices. If you imagine reversing them, then you can manage the risks. Imagine failure. Imagine the wrong bet.

What does that look like? What do you do about what you see?

  • You could hedge your bets. Keep the other door just a bit open. (But again, if you put too many resources into that, you’re not really making a choice. We can’t have it all in a world of constrained resources, and I’m not trying to pretend we can.) But just having some kind of sense of a Plan B, I’d say, makes it less likely you’d ever need one, if only because you can ease up a bit on catastrophizing about the apocalyptic future if Plan A doesn’t work.
  • You could adapt your approach so that you minimize some of the scarier risks. What could you do to make it more likely that you’ll be successful? What do you really need to grapple with? This might surface some of the issues you’ve avoided talking about, some difficult conversations you need to have.
  • You could commit to being realistic about implementation. This is where failure tends to sneak up on us… Our strategy is to do X, so we’re doing X – at least some of X. But are we really doing enough of X to make a meaningful difference? If we keep asking what we’re really doing to move the dial in a realistic, meaningful way, we will be more likely to invest the right resources, take the right approaches (which may be quite different from what we’ve done before), and measure the right activities and outcomes.
  • You could keep an eye on the signs that a risk is becoming more likely. How would you know if we’re wrong in your assessment of the situation and your selection of response to it via strategy? These measures will be your canaries in the coalmine, so it’s important to get them right. You don’t need a lot of them. You just need a way to get a sense if you are indeed wrong, or if there have been unfavourable developments, that lead you to pull up and seriously reassess.

Now, do you use the discussion of failure to rally the troops and galvanize action and inspire people? Probably not. But it’s an important – and often overlooked – part of strategic leadership nonetheless. Let’s think about failure less often at 2 AM and more often at 2 PM.

If you’d like to talk about either success or failure, or something in between, please get in touch.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.