Episode 10: It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

We often make a distinction between failure and mistakes, but they are, in reality, the same. Mistakes are just little failures that result from a poor decision. Failures are really just big mistakes, right? So why do we put more psychological weight behind failure when the root of each failure is really no different than an everyday mistake?

When failures DO happen, though, it can hurt. Even if you’re the best at taking things in stride or lightning-fast in reacting to snafus, failure takes time to process, to resolve, and to learn from. Just like there’s no such thing as an overnight success, there’s no such thing as an overnight failure. There’s a lot of work that can lead up to failing, and there’s a lot to be done post-failure to make up for it and move on. Allow me to illustrate:

Many years ago I was a project manager at a museum and art college handling all of the in-house design projects. These ranged from student recruitment materials to exhibition signage and even books about artists and exhibitions that were sometimes as many as 280 pages. Big and small, our three-person design team handled it all, and if you’ve ever worked for a non-profit, you know that the pace is fast, the responsibilities each staff member holds are extensive, and you’re always on a budget.

Despite my love for copy editing and proofreading, I quickly learned that no matter how many times you pore over every inch of a printed proof, you will always miss something. Some typographical character won’t be correct, some word will be misspelled, or some line will be slightly out of place. Why? Because we’re human, and because the more we look at something, the less our eyes see. The first few big projects we produced had some pretty significant errors in them, and I always felt they reflected poorly on me as a project manager. I let these slip through the cracks. My eyes weren’t good enough. I should have looked at that proof one more stinking time!

As each project rolled off the presses or was hung up on the gallery walls, I started to learn what types of mistakes happened most often and was able to put in some better practices to reduce the number of overall mistakes over time. But I couldn’t fix it overnight. And the typo in the vinyl introductory text for that exhibition? That was always there, nagging at me, sticking out like a sore thumb for everyone who entered the museum. And that felt worse than no catching the mistake in the first place.

Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.

In the world of app development, you’re always working from version to version as you add features, fix bugs, and make improvements that will keep your customers happy. Developers frequently work several versions out into the future depending on their development cycle and the scope of the features or improvements they’re working on. And even when they’ve worked extensively with beta testers to try and go through every possible scenario, there’s always something that will slip through the cracks. Sometimes, when a new version of an app is released, a critical bug will slip through, and panic ensues. The same goes for any major updates to operating systems—sometimes there are changes outside of the developer’s control that can’t be remedied immediately. Even if the developer is able to catch the bug or find a workaround immediately, there’s usually a review process and a few days before the update can actually be released. And that window of waiting and biting nails is excruciatingly painful. More customers are finding the bug, getting angry, and leaving bad reviews because they don’t know that there’s a fix on the way.

Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.

Let’s say you spent the last six months revamping the packaging for all of your products so that they’re consistent, on brand, and adequately strong during shipping to protect your goods. You found a local box-maker, paid to have them come up with some CAD drawings, and invested in a few dies for different sized boxes that would cut them out and score them. Then you got together with your graphic designer to work out what would be printed on the boxes, sent the files to the printer, and approved your first print run of shiny new packaging. And then they arrived and you noticed that you forgot a crucial piece of information on the back of the box. Maybe it was regulatory wording, maybe you forgot to add your website. Either way, the pit in your stomach grows and you realize you’ve made a huge mistake.

So what do you do? Scrap the entire thing and have a whole new print run made? Sure, if you have the cash lying around! But that probably doesn’t meet your long-term financial goals, so you’ll just have to make do with what you have. So you set out to fix it and either get a stamp or some labels made so you can add that key info to your packaging. It’s not the most elegant situation in the world, and every time you stamp that box or apply that stickers, you’ll remember that mistake and kick yourself for not doing it correctly the first time. But you know what? Most people won’t notice or won’t care, and you know that’s the first thing you’re going to fix when you run out of boxes and need to have more printed.

Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.

Failure is a process—one you should embrace. Learning from failure is a lot like learning about yourself. You get the chance to dive into why it happened, what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it, and how you can work to reduce your risk of failure in the future. But in the midst of that failure process, you have to understand that it can get worse before it gets better. And that’s okay.

Note: Your Handmade Business will be on summer break from June through August, with regular episodes picking back up in September.

Related Links

Want to learn more about the pre-mortem exercise? Check out this article from gamestorming.com.

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If you'd like to dive deeper into this month's theme of failure, you can re-watch Sharon's Fail Forward webinar.

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