Fires and Questions: Recent Mistakes and my Takeaways

I read an interesting view on mistakes versus failures in Ross McCammon’s, Works Well with Others. He suggests that failure is a purely negative outcome while mistakes offer opportunities for growth. 

About six months ago I made some mistakes, and four months ago, I paid for them… big.
I won’t go into details, but instead leave it at, December and January were far from stress-free. 

As things cooled off I was able to reflect on what happened. Where had I gone wrong? And once the chaos ensued, how could I have handled it better?

After weeks of mulling, I boiled my missteps down to two major takeaways: ask questions and know when to power through.


Ask Questions
I’ve never been good at asking clarifying questions. My default is to work things out myself. There are times when 'going it alone' can be constructive. Yet those instances are preceded by context and an understanding of the framework within which you’re working.

Without that context, you’re operating off of a set of assumptions that may or may not be correct. Even when launching a startup, it's imperative to understand the basics: the industry you're entering, the problem you're solving, who your customers are. Asking stakeholders clarifying questions can inform a rudimentary framework, within which you can construct a business.

The framework can change over time, but you'll always have a context for your work.

In an established company, there’s likely a framework already in place. If you're hired to improve a facet of that business, you first need to build an understanding of the institutional framework.

Why are we currently doing it this way?
What is most valued by our customers? By senior management?
What major issues have you seen in the past?
What is the long-term goal of this initiative?

The list goes on and on.

These types of questions are precise and probing, meant to shed light on the framework at play. The more you know, the more you can improve your facet of the business. 

I made mistakes that put my co-workers and I on a crash-course with the Christmas season. If I had asked probing questions early and often, it's likely we would have escaped the holidays with fewer bruises. 

So… Never shy away from asking questions to understand the context of your work. Both you and your business will benefit. 


Know When to Power Through
There are times for reflection and there are times for action, and It’s rare that those two times coincide with one another. Recognizing times of action is easy. Resisting inopportune moments of reflection proves more difficult. 

It's human nature to seek an explanation for how we’ve ended up where we are. If something positive happens, we want to know how to promote more positive outcomes. If we experience a negative outcome, we want to understand how to avoid the same pitfalls in the future. 

When the mistakes of the prior months came to bear, I wanted to know what caused the chaos. Everything had looked so promising, so how did reality become far removed from the holiday game-plan? 

I poured over potential missteps, searching for the culprit of my work-life pain. The reasoning was, if I could pinpoint the underlying cause of the fire we were fighting, I could stem its spread and the holiday season could be saved. 

It's an attractive theory, but in practice, that approach is doomed to failure. 

To continue with the fire metaphor, the time to search for the ignition source is not when the house is on fire. There will be plenty of time to find the source of the blaze once it's put out. 

Inopportune reflection is, at best, a waste of precious time. At worst, it can be cripplingly counterproductive. 

So… If there’s a fire, put it out. Reflection and longer-term improvements can come after you’ve powered through. 


The Wrap-up
These takeaways are not groundbreaking. They could even be categorized as common sense. Yet it took stumbling headlong over both to ingrain them in my consciousness for good. 

My mistakes have made me better at what I do. So I implore you, make mistakes early and often, give questions the same treatment, and always have your extinguisher at the ready.