Posts Tagged ‘communication skills’

Leader driven Harmony #7: Failure is required (Part II)

by Mack McKinney on January 14, 2011

In the previous post we learned about the danger of not experiencing enough failure in life and we watched John make a bad decision that could have gotten him killed.  We also talked about how well-meaning people who shelter us from failure can rob us of the mental toughness that we need to get through life, thereby actually increasing the chance of our failing later on in some major way.

In business we are seeing Gen-Yers enter the workforce having never been allowed to really fail at anything.  People who have tried and failed are much more attractive to most employers than people who have led sheltered lives, protected from failure, with teachers and parents hovering over them and protecting their increasingly brittle self-images.  Job applicants in this latter group often have fragile egos, cannot accept constructive criticism, and (worst case) may feel entitled to a career that is completely arranged and managed for them, not by them.  This is a recipe for career disaster.

Companies like to see some minor failures in a new hire’s past because they understand the value of the subsequent lessons-learned.  Candidates don’t list failures on their resumes, of course, so corporate interviewers in HR listen for “I made a mistake and learned from it” statements during job interviews:

  1. “I launched a small business in computer repair in high school but it failed after only a year.  I didn’t understand marketing and the local Geek Squad put me out of business pretty quickly.”
  2. “I started a business in web design but I could never afford the design software programs (Dream Weaver, etc.) that I needed to do a first class design.  So I learned the hard way about the importance of getting enough capital up front when you start a small business.”
  3. “I tried free-lance video production for a year but I could never buy a really good camera, so my videos couldn’t compete with established firms.  Also I had no formal training in camera work and I guess that showed.”

But just reading about other entrepreneurs’ failures won’t really drive the lessons home – – – only personally failing can do it.  Losing your own savings in a failed business venture is much more effective as a teaching tool than watching somebody else lose their savings.  Not catching a cash flow problem in time to fix it, and having to lay-off a friend who works for you, will teach you a banking lesson you’ll never forget.  The stakes are lower in school as opposed to the rough and tumble business world, but the lessons are even more important.  I hope you’ll learn (or DID learn) in school that:

  1. Failure is a part of life.  And getting past failure and learning from it are the most crucial of life-skills.  Not everyone in a class should get an “A” grade.  Some people should get failing grades and teachers who do this are doing the student a favor.  After about the third grade, not everyone on a sports team should get an award because, if they do, ALL the awards mean nothing.  The competitive spirit will be stifled.  There SHOULD be awards for the best students in a sport, class, contest, etc.  And parents of students who did not get an award should tell their children “Hey, not getting the award doesn’t make you a LOSER.  You were just not the winner. You’ll need to try harder next time.”  This builds determination, helps youngsters set high goals for themselves and work toward them, and helps them form a resilient character for protection against occasional disappointment.
  2. If well-meaning people are preventing you from ever failing, they are doing you no favors and you are not pushing yourself hard enough!  Ask them to let you climb out on a limb a little by permitting you to make non-life-critical decisions and then living with the consequences.  You’ll still want a safety net to prevent cataclysmic failures while you are learning the ropes, but you need to be allowed to screw-up!  My old flight instructor Larry Davis had my friend John as a primary flight student.  One day during pattern practice at the local airport, Larry emphasized the importance of maintaining flying speed and staying at the correct altitude.  After letting John get too low on the approach, and slightly (but not yet dangerously) slow, Larry said quietly and calmly “John, unless you do something pretty fast, we are both going to die.”  – – – Notice that Larry didn’t tell John WHAT to do. – – –  With heart now racing, John had to quickly scan across the gauges and see the low airspeed, and then see the low altitude on the altimeter, and then fix the problem by immediately adding power (gas) to speed the airplane up and start a climb to a safe altitude.  Larry let John feel the rising panic, and sort it out on his own.  He let him fail in his approach to landing and only intervened just short of a fatal outcome, perhaps also a self-preservation tactic in this case!   The story was embarrassing when retold around the airport and John learned the lesson well.
  3. If you are still in school, you need to get a little more “edgy” in your academic efforts.  My son is a senior in an Exercise Science program at a major university but instead of the normal progression into physical therapy after graduation, he is interested in medical school and surgery.  The college’s internship program pushed him toward spending all 480 hrs in his last semester “shadowing” a physical therapist.  But instead, he worked with the college and with a local hospital to build an internship program split among the hospital’s emergency room, the surgery department and physical therapy.  It had never been done and required a lot of schmoozing and coordinating but it is working!  He started this in time to either get it arranged, or not, by the deadline for internship arrangements.  And he had a back-up plan (480 hrs in a PT department) in case the other plan didn’t come together.  But he wanted to try the non-standard, custom internship approach and his college counselor had the wisdom to say “Sure, try it.  See if you can get the college to agree to it and then see if you can find a hospital willing to do it.  What the heck.”

So I am asking you to fail.  I am asking you to push yourself hard enough that you sometimes screw-up.  As you fail, don’t let your failures unnecessarily impact innocent people and don’t fail in catastrophic ways.  For example, risking your college savings on launching a competitor to Facebook might not be wise;  and moving to Nashville so you can meet Taylor Swift and have her fall in love with you doesn’t have much chance of succeeding.  But push enough in your hobbies, job, profession or academics that you fall short sometimes.  Set goals that stretch your performance.  And fail sometimes.  It is OK. You’ll learn the sting of failure, you’ll learn how NOT to do it next time, and you’ll develop the mental strength to fail, get up, and try something different.  Life demands failure but you get to decide when!   Paradoxically, the occasional failures on little things, through the years, will make you much less likely to make (or become) a major failure later in life.

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Why should you read this post?  Because this little crash course in effective writing is the collective intelligence of thousands of people just like you.  It is a living document and benefits from ongoing improvements suggested by our students.  Their suggestions and observations, especially in the final section, make us all much better writers.

Last week we discussed the importance of understanding the purpose of anything you write, long before you hit the first key on the old laptop.  This post discusses the crucial importance of understanding the likely audience of your document, the main content and the most appropriate style for your purpose.


Do not begin writing, or even outlining main points, until the main target audience is chosen and then include a little something for everyone.

Will the report be read by seasoned technical staff or by program management people whose technical backgrounds are unknown?  You will, of course, want to report at a level of technical complexity that mirrors your primary customer’s level of technical comprehension.  Even then, you should introduce your key points in plain speech, followed by detailed engineering discussions about why you chose the approach you chose, how your conclusions were reached, the trade-offs you performed, etc.  And if you expect your report to be read by a multi-level audience of lay and technical people, making your main points early in each section is even more important.

This is also a good time to think about the access your competition is likely to have to your report.  If the audience is the US Government, then SETA (Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance) contractors, perhaps even your competitors, are likely to read it.  If you have Intellectual Property (IP) that needs to be discussed in the report, you should try to discuss it in sufficient detail for the customer to get a feel for its significance, but not in so much detail that you lose competitive advantage to a competitor.  Consult your company’s Marketing and Intellectual Property staffs on these issues, before you write those sections.  (If you write those sections first and they are later rewritten or deleted, and if the authors of other sections have referenced your earlier [now nonexistent] paragraphs, you may cause lots of confusion.)


Rookies talk mainly about the format of a document.  Professionals talk about the content.  Ensure that the content and technical/operational level of detail matches the customer’s expectations.

How deeply does your sponsor expect you to discuss key topics and important findings in this report?  How much support for your findings will she expect?  If in doubt, ask her! One hint can be found in the proposal that won you the job to begin with, and the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in your proposal/Statement of Work (SOW): how much funding did you/he allocate to do the report?  A report for which 10 hours were allocated in the WBS should look very different from a report that was to consume 120 hours of the team’s time.  A study that changed its main thrust in mid-stream also probably needs a little more explanation/support than a study that remained true-to-proposal.  If you already know the report will be used to convince/persuade others, then you must be certain to provide sufficient rationale to carry your arguments.  Include possible objections and arguments that may occur to the reader and address those crisply and thoroughly. One way to do this is to offer those arguments as ideas that occurred to your team as well, and which were then considered during the course of the study.  Psychologically, the reader may then feel vindicated that he thought of the same issues as your technical team.  And he may also begin to believe that you and he think alike, a very important psychological milestone in your relationship!  And all of this is made possible simply by how you worded your findings.

A cautionary note:  If you are working from a document that originated elsewhere, you may not want readers of the finished document to know its detailed lineage. One US prime contractor was writing a proposal to a NATO RFT (Request for Tender) back in the 1990s only to discover that the NATO RFT’s Statement of Work actually had originated months earlier at a competitor’s facility.  Previously just pasting a document into a fresh shell document was deemed sufficient but not anymore.  Lineage data is still available to a determined sleuth.  Software plug-ins are available that can permanently erase the originator, editors and record of changes for a document.  Converting MS Word™ and Power Point™ documents to Adobe™ pdf documents works well and also makes alteration more difficult.


Do not permit the concept of writing style to become an excuse for poor writing. Have trained technical writers review important documents before release.

Writing style can determine to a large degree how well the author’s information is conveyed.  Our personal writing style is the product of our education, experience and training.  A person may have a deep technical education and lots of experience in a given technical/other field, but unless they have been trained to write clearly and succinctly, their writing style is likely to be confusing and verbose.  Writing is a skill.  It must be taught (even self-taught), practiced regularly, and its impact fine-tuned via feedback from readers.  Typically, much of that feedback comes from the writer’s peers.  This is why After-Action Sessions are so useful to proposal and report writing teams.  These sessions examine what could have been done better and often solicit the opinions of other employees (preferably from varying disciplines) regarding improvements needed in writing style, content, format, etc.

When confronted with recommended changes to a report they authored, technical writers sometimes get defensive, saying “well that is just my style and I cannot change the way I write”.  But often the claim of a “unique writing style” is used to mask poor writing skills, plain and simple.  There are generally accepted standards for English usage and they should be followed.

Writing user manuals is both a science and an art form.  When you need user manuals, do not let the hardware and software teams who built the system/device also write the manuals.  Employ people who are trained to write these or risk having your system unfairly maligned by every user who struggles to understand the directions.

When you write a report on behalf of your employer, you are representing the employer.  In fact, your report may be the only thing some readers will ever know about your firm.  Readers may draw all kinds of conclusions based solely upon that document, far beyond an opinion about the writer’s likely grade in English 101:

  • Clarity and Decisiveness. If the document makes clear points and does so quickly, your company will be seen as a team of clear thinkers and decisive managers, as opposed to a bunch of hand-wringers.
  • Careful, not Convoluted. If the conclusions are well supported, the firm will be seen as comprised of careful thinkers, as opposed to a group of convoluted thinkers who draw conclusions from thin air.
  • Sparingly and Effectively Detailed. If the entire document hangs together well, with short write-ups where warranted and longer sections where needed, your firm will be viewed as being able to communicate complex ideas, with a good appreciation of where the reader might need supporting detail.
  • Thoroughness. If there are no typographical or grammatical errors, the reader will feel that the writer cared enough about the impression he would make to thoroughly proofread the entire document. It probably means the company pays attention to detail.

In the next post we will provide a rogues’ list of the main offenders in writing; we will discuss many of the mistakes, large and small, that keep writing from being as clear and crisp as it should be.  And if you do nothing more than just read about the mistakes that aggravate others, you will become aware of those errors and I guarantee you will become a better writer!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation