I recently experienced a quintessential consultant failure. The project was interesting. The client was engaged, responsive, and supportive. The data was clean. The team was in sync and productive. The work product was so good, the client immediately signed us up for another engagement with several more on the horizon. It was a grand slam for the team, but I personally struck out.
Confusing one set of data for another, I delivered work that was sub-par. For a consultant in their first year, especially one who takes client satisfaction seriously, this was a blow both to my ego and to my professional confidence; it was a wake-up call to improve. I’ve since put time into self-reflection, ownership of my mistakes, and improvement of my own work process to prevent these errors in the future; I’ve learned.
Failure is an important learning experience. Steve Jobs was voted out by his own board. Elon Musk has crashed eleven Starships. Milton Hershey went bankrupt five times before hitting it big in chocolate. If we accept ownership for our failures, it drives us to reflection, motivates personal change, and contributes to our growth. Failure is a good thing when handled appropriately.
A common definition of failure is “falling short”. Whether it be client expectations of time, cost, and quality in the professional realm, a disappointment to a friend or loved one in the personal realm, or an inability to cover the bills in the financial realm, failure means falling short of some standard.
Our standards can be subjective and self-imposed or objective and imposed by others. Low subjective standards, like my quality standards on the client engagement, lead to increased objective failures. High subjective standards lead to increased personal failures, but also drive successful objective outcomes. A proper balance of challenge and realism with our personal standards is needed to get the most out of subjective failure because unattainable standards lead to personal frustration and pessimism.
Through this reflection, I uncovered an empowering idea: by setting my personal standards higher than the standards set by others, I guarantee my personal and professional growth and success. So, this time, I failed. I let that failure drive deeper reflection, and I’m making changes by raising my personal work standards and putting a process in place to ensure I meet client expectations in the future. Thanks to these raised subjective standards, continue to grow and improve.
|High Objective Standard
|Low Objective Standard
|High Subjective Standard
|Sprint - Objective Success, spurring optimal performance and growth
|Walk - Subjective “Failures”, fueling high performance and growth
|Low Subjective Standard
|Crawl - Objective Failure, driving self-reflection and change
|Stand - Objective “Success”, but no stimulus to grow or improve
As illustrated in the table above, optimal conditions for personal and professional growth include high subjective and objective standards where we are motivated internally and externally to peak performance. The worst possible environment for our growth and performance is one where both our standards and the standards of those we serve are low, leading to an experience of pseudo-success which engenders complacency and stagnation. By setting high subjective standards and seeking to operate in environments with high objective standards, we optimize our personal growth and successful performance.