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Try, Try Again

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Don't let fear of failure hold you back.

As I was preparing to write this column, I looked up the word "fail." To my surprise, the web version of Oxford Dictionary has a top 1,000-word feature. The word "fail" is firmly nested in its list of top 1,000 frequently used words. Thankfully, the word "success" is on that list as well.

Why do many of us tend to run from the room screaming when we hear the word "fail"? According to Oxford, we use the word fairly frequently but we seem to be as comfortable with failure as we might be with a spider in our tent. Is it because we were driven into a state of anxiety during our adolescence, frightened by the omnipresent fear of a failing grade from one of our teachers?

I admit, I don't feel the same way about failure as I do when I'm surfing the warm waters of Australia. But I'm not afraid of failing. Just like I'm not afraid of sharks in those wavy beaches Down Under, I'm not afraid of drowning either. You have to at least try, otherwise you will never know if you're succeeding or failing.

Before I entered the corporate world in 2002, I spent roughly five years in higher education. The team and department I was a part of was referred to as "cost recovery." In short, there were no public funds. For the team and department to remain operating, it survived through the tuition fees of students.

There were four programs we started out with in 1998. One consisted of a six-month, full-time technology support curriculum targeted at people interested in call center careers or tech support. A second program was part time, offered at night and geared toward those looking to improve their skills in the network administration arena. The third program focused on various software development languages, run full-time over six months. A fourth program—12 months in length, full time, and incredibly difficult—was aimed at individuals already in possession of a bachelor's degree (or higher) who were looking to become business leaders in the high-tech networking, administration, or consulting space.

It's this latter program, called ITP (information technology professional), where my story of failure and lessons learned begins.

Dive in

Fast forward to 2001. It had been roughly three years since ITP first launched. Each year saw three different cohorts of 30 students commence their studies. Those students were paying a hefty tuition fee as well. For their year of immersive and intense education, each student coughed up approximately $20,000. The program was a mix of leadership development and concentrated technology education. The technology learning focused on concepts such as local and wide area networking, web commerce, and business intelligence amid other technical topics. It did not delve into software development, although baseline web development was taught. The aim was not to make the graduates coders or programmers.

Not all graduates were thrilled with the final result, but the majority of them were satisfied, ultimately landing roles as consultants, analysts, administrators, and so on. After three years of the ITP program, my mind began to wander. I thought it was time to get on another surfboard and test some new bodies of water.

I mused to the team: "What if we took the general concept of ITP—12 months, simulated business model, combination of technical and leadership development, three-month work term, highly interactive, and intensive education experience—and substituted the technology component with web development?"

Because we had an existing education blueprint with the ITP program, I figured it would be a cinch to replicate the success we were having with the existing program simply by replacing one technology stream with another. Instead of networking we'd teach web development. We could keep all key facets of the program intact and everything would be fine. We even had on-site facilities into which the new version of the program could expand. It was going to be so easy you could sense students smiling from ear to ear on graduation day a year later.

I couldn't have been more wrong. It was a catastrophe. The new program we launched was a failure, but I learned a lot through the process.

Muddy waters


The first cohort of what we coined PWD—professional web developer program—was small in comparison to ITP (only 18 students versus 30), proving even in the latter part of the dot-com days that not everyone thought web development was going to be an easy ticket to prosperity. Suffice to say, in the lead-up to launching the program, it was an extremely difficult time trying to convince potential students of the merits of PWD. At best, the program was teetering on a small loss.

Next was the curriculum itself. While in theory and on paper, it made sense to swap out one type of technology education for another, it was a critical error. Network administration is much different from web development, yet we were accepting the same types of students as in ITP. So long as you had a degree, we felt we could teach anyone to code. It was a colossal mistake.

Problems popped up the very first week. Some of the students were doing very well, while others were experiencing incredible difficulties with the prospect of learning how to code. The gap in skill was a detriment to the other aspects of the program (leadership development, business simulation, etc.) because more time than planned had to be spent on the technical education.

Finding paid co-op placements also was a nightmare. In the ITP program, almost all positions for the three-month work-term period were paid. As we rolled out the PWD program, less than a handful were paid. As you can imagine, the level of stress was extremely high—to the point of several students demanding partial refunds on their tuition when graduation day rolled around.

What did I learn from the situation and what would I do differently today?

  • You have to try. Even though it was not the result I was hoping for, there were three classes that went through the program who then embarked on careers in the web development space. Had we not tried as a school, would those individuals ever had made the career change? I learned to always try even against the odds.
  • Blind faith is not enough. Even though four programs were running successfully, previous success does not guarantee future success. Just because you've had previous success does not mean you should be blind to potential pitfalls or ignorant to your own confirmation bias. I learned to play devil's advocate against my own ideas.
  • Groupthink is actually a thing. Although I was the instigator of the program, everyone went along with the plan. There was not a truly critical debate on whether it was a good idea or a bad idea to launch the program. I learned we ought to have sought external opinion and market analysis on the merits of the program.
  • The ole switcheroo is fool's gold. Naively thinking that swapping one technology education stream for another without there being downstream ramifications was evidence of either belief bias or optimism bias on my part. I learned never to assume one product type will work for another situation.
  • Failure is an option. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." I'll take trying something over doing nothing every day. In fact, that's how I learn.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Dan Pontefract is chief envisioner at TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company, where he heads the Transformation Office, a future-of-work consulting group that helps organizations enhance their corporate cultures and collaboration practices. Previously as head of learning and collaboration at TELUS, Dan introduced a new leadership framework—called the TELUS Leadership Philosophy—that dramatically helped to increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels of nearly 90 percent. He is the author of The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization as well as Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. A renowned speaker, Dan has presented at multiple TED events and also writes for Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. Dan and his wife, Denise, have three young children (aka goats) and live in Victoria, Canada. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. More information is at www.danpontefract.com

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