Overcome the Fear of Failure

Post by 
John Hoppe, PE
August 17, 2021

“What’s wrong?” My wife asked, as we sat on our beach chairs, enjoying the refreshing ocean breeze, and it was clear I had read something disturbing on my phone. “Are you checking your work email?!”

I made the grave mistake of aimlessly scrolling through my work inbox, while I should have been enjoying the day off with my family. I came across a message marked “urgent”, and true to form, it quickly ruined my day. The mechanical contractor was on-site and ready to lift a section of specialized process equipment into place when they found the error: “These equipment pedestals are too high! The engineering drawings are wrong!”.

But how can that be? I asked my wife, as if she had checked the equipment and engineering drawings and knew my design couldn’t be wrong. My mind now racing, I opened each attachment, knowing (hoping?) they would confirm my team had not made a mistake. Upon further review, my worst fears were realized – we had made a mistake, and a costly one. We had matched all the dimensions on the equipment supplier’s drawings, to the nearest millimeter. However, we missed the reference specification on the drawing, which would’ve told us we were to subtract 200mm from every elevation listed, to leave space for specialized grouting. Do you know how long it takes to remove 8-inches of reinforced concrete from two kiln piers? I do – 2 full days of jackhammering.

My day now ruined, I pulled together the reference drawings and specifications and replied to the customer, contractor, and project team with the backup, where we went wrong, and what needed to be done to move forward. I apologized profusely, and was ashamed such a simple, yet expensive, error had occurred on my watch. I was down in the dumps, with my tail tucked between my legs, when I saw an email from my Project Manager come through. Here we go, I said to myself, expecting my lashes. I’ll never forget the simple message that said:

“The only way to not make mistakes is to never do anything”.

Instantly I was relieved and could breathe again. It was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment and became a turning point for me. To that point of my career, I had lived each day on edge, fearing “failure”, fearing being “exposed”… but why? I knew no one was perfect, myself included. Why did I expect perfection? Not only was I missing the basic truth that I would never avoid making mistakes, but I was also missing the blessing that comes through failure and learning through those experiences! A true leader not only encourages and inspires their team in hard times (like my project manager did for me that day), but also learns from failures and applies these lessons to add value to future situations.

John Maxwell discusses the “Law of Navigation” in his classic book, “21 Laws of Leadership”. He explains that it takes a leader to chart the course. Part of this preparation and planning is based on incorporating lessons learned. Failures teach great lessons – we should take the time to reflect, analyze and learn from them. If we embrace our failures, they will shape us to provide better service for our customers and make us better teammates and leaders.

So, how do we do this? Here are a few things we’ve learned:

1. Own the Cause. If you (or someone on your team) makes a mistake, own it! When it comes to mistakes and hard situations, leaders need to eliminate words like “they” and “them” and replace with words like “me” and “us”. A true leader owns the cause of the team, and their work products.

2. Don’t Get Defensive: Focus on the Solution. Most of us initially respond to failure by getting overly defensive. Engineers, like ourselves, are some of the worst at this! We try to justify our mistake or find someone to blame (Own the Cause!). The reason for the error is important and is part of the reflection and analysis that leads to a better result next time. But don’t confuse this with getting defensive and letting your pride get in the way. You made a mistake, humble yourself, accept it, and move on to finding the best solution. I’ve found it’s best to focus on the root cause, in the moment, only to the extent necessary to reach a sufficient solution. Leave the detailed analysis to later once you are back on schedule and the project is moving forward.

3. Tell Someone Else. It takes humility to do this, but while it’s still fresh, be sure to share the lesson learned with your extended team, department, or office. It doesn’t have to be formally documented in a company standard – this takes time that you may not have in the moment, and this “red tape” may keep you from sharing it with others that it could help. Even a simple email to your project or department team can go a long way. You can flag it for more formal implementation (such as, working it into a design standard or procedure) later.

4. Lead by Example: Lift up your Teammates. When your team member fails, be there for them. Encourage them that they are not alone, and this failure does not define them - how they respond does. Assist them to move forward and make it right. Then, they can do the same for others when needed.

5. Successes count too! Lessons learned aren’t only meant for failures; share your positive experiences with others too, as perhaps they can incorporate it into their current or next project. Best practices should be shared across the business and, where possible, incorporated into standards and procedures to aid in continuous improvement. Multiply your successes! That’s part of what your customers are paying for when they hire an experienced team.

At Isomer, we add value to your projects with our foresight and planning. We use our knowledge to help you navigate around potential pitfalls and known challenges. This is based on our time in the industry, the number of projects we’ve guided, and the lessons learned from our successes and failures. We strive to embrace our lessons learned and reinvent ourselves continuously so we can continue to provide first class service to our customers.

About Isomer Project Group

Isomer Project Group exists for one purpose - to help bring great ideas to life. We have the experience of best-of-the-best EPC organizations but the fresh ideas and passion of a tech startup.

Founded in 2020, Isomer Project Group is based in Greenville, SC. The company is anchored by partners who together have successfully managed more than $2 billion in industrial projects across multiple markets - many of them representing first-of-a-kind technologies and processes. The firm plans to continue growing its team of engineers, project managers, and other professionals to support clients looking for an innovative approach to project execution.

Nothing gets our team excited like a good challenge. Drop us a line at contact@isomer.group or give us a call at (864) 565-9100 to connect and find out how we can help bring your idea to life.

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