With temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit in August of 2003, over 50 million people were hit by a nearly simultaneous loss of power. What should have been a very manageable situation quickly turned into a miserable experience for so many during this hot summer day.

Because of the extreme heat, an electrical line in Northern Ohio failed when it sagged into the tree branches below. With no place for the electricity to go, it was transferred to another line, and then another. And then these failed. All of the extra electricity had to be transferred to yet more lines and the problem continued to spread. The normal warning indicators had malfunctioned, and by the time the flow of failures was halted, people were impacted across 8 states and Canada.

A situation like this is known as cascading failure. It occurs when failure spreads across a series of interconnected systems. Unfortunately, there are many situations at work where people compound one small failure with another, and then another, and so on. These successive missteps often lead to a massive on the job failure that could have been avoided.

Examples of cascading failure are all too easy to find at work. One played out recently in a very public manner with Ron Johnson, the former CEO of J.C. Penney. In prior roles he was instrumental in the success of rebranding Target, and had served as a highly regarded senior executive at Apple. Mr. Johnson had the pedigree to succeed, but did not. In just a year and a half at the helm the company lost $4 billion in revenue, and erased more than half of its shareholder value!

His goal was to turn J.C. Penney around and reshape the retail industry with his new strategy. The strategy was based on a store-within-a-store concept where shoppers would want to hang out and buy merchandise that was not on sale. The problem was that it was his strategy. He was largely unconcerned with what others thought or the customer wanted; he did not solicit feedback. Mr. Johnson tried to do everything at once. He did not start small, learn, adjust, and expand. In other words, if there was any misjudgment the failure cascaded through the entire network of stores at once. In effect, he let what could have been small manageable failures--and learning opportunities--become large cascading failures from which he could not recover.

Here are 5 actions you can take to avoid letting small mistakes turn into cascading failure and allowing it to derail you.

  1. Constantly seek feedback. Doing this proactively will enable you to learn quickly if you are off track, and you can then adjust accordingly. This is often the most critical step to ensure a small failure doesn't spiral out of control.
  2. Treat mistakes as finite events. Sports commentators will often remark how an athlete let a small mistake get in his head. As a result they overcompensate and the situation worsens, or they develop a negative attitude and as a result self-doubt creeps in.
  3. Quickly Learn from Mistakes. The faster you learn from a mistake the more apt you are to avoid repeating it. Do a quick post mortem and ask yourself what you should have done differently, and what you will do moving forward. By learning form the mistake and quickly putting it behind you, you will avoid similar mistakes in the future, thereby preventing it from building and cascading.
  4. Follow Failure with Milestone Goals. Research has shown the power of following failure with a quick success. Landing on a goal--even if a small one--after a failure will allow you to build momentum and elicit the positive feelings associated with success.
  5. Be Open to Adjustments. The best-laid plans change, and sometimes this becomes clear when something goes wrong. Even if you thought you knew exactly the right path to take, be open to the fact that you may need to change paths as circumstances change or you come across new information.

If you do not commit a series of mistakes in succession, you greatly limit the risk of the failure bringing you and your career or business trajectory down. Failure by itself, then, is not the problem. Failure is inevitable. Your response to it is not. The problem is either not learning from failure--and quickly--or allowing it to cascade until you are left with a massive problem. When you train yourself to learn quickly from failure you stop it from spreading and can move rapidly into new successes, and then again onto more.

Published on: Aug 26, 2014
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