What Are You Offering, Complaints or Options?

About a month ago, there was a great call to action on the WorkAwesome blog:

What is the best professional advice you ever received? And where did it come from?

I meant to write a post in response to this, but the usual events (news, work, family) thwarted my efforts. Given that today is Labor Day here in the United States, I figured it was a good time to revisit this topic.

The Best Professional Advice I Received

Early in my career, around 1998, I was working as a consultant. A project that I was designing had a fundamental constraint, internet access could not be assumed at all times when using the application. So, we needed to have some sort of synchronization process. Our initial design was a complete failure, due to the lack of research in some key technologies where they would not truly support our processes. So, I went to my boss to deliver the news. I told him that the synchronization process would not work as designed and we would need to start over. He asked what options we had and how long they would take. I stood there without an answer. My boss had a fairly hot temper, but this time he obviously restrained himself and said:

When your design will not work, do not come in here with complaints, only come in with options.

It is very easy to get mired in the failure itself. I was still young (around 26) and had not dealt with much project failure. Dave Winer has a very good tale on one of his potential failures as well:

Over on Ycombinator one of the commenters, TotlolRon, quoted Apollo 13 Flight Controller Jerry Bostick. “When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them.” I think that’s pretty close to the sentiment. You’re out there, you’re alone, and if you fail, you aren’t coming back. That is the feeling I had outside the office that night.

The key in Dave’s story is that you need to think about the options to avoid failure and not dwell on the failure itself. In that doomed project, I was dwelling on the failure. So, I took my boss’ advice and came back the next day with options. Granted, the options did not appear like a vision, I needed to work on them. I was dealing with a mobile sales force that might only connect to the internet while at the office, or so I thought. I talked with the VP of Sales and the CIO, and found that a connectivity deal had been signed just a few days before our meeting. So, I could now depend on constant connectivity through dialup modems.

With connectivity came the answers. So, the next day I presented my options with potential issues to my boss. I had a recommendation ready among the options as well as contingency plans for the issues. From that point onward, the project was fine and we delivered a solid solution within the budget.

Failure is not an option” is a widely used mantra. I think this misleads people to think that all failure should be avoided. Let’s change this mantra to “Failure as an end status is not an option.” You can fail along the path, but you need to learn from those failures. You need to think of options to your failure in order to achieve success. In some cases, the answer may be obvious. In other cases, it will be much easier to just complain about the failure. The next time you fail at something, first think about what options you have. You may find that a alternative solution is easier to deal with than the consequences of the failure.

So, what are you offering, complaints or options?

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