by Maryfran Johnson

The Many Ways to Fail

May 07, 20093 mins

How failure results in lessons learned.

Failure happens. Despite the popularity of that macho business slogan, sometimes failure actually is an option. Certainly not one we would choose. But one that chooses us.

So how do we count the many ways to fail? There are failures of leadership and strategic thinking gone awry. There are failures of communication, leading people to bad decisions or mistaken assumptions. There are failures of business models that no one could foresee or forestall.

But the real test for CIOs these days is not merely surviving failure but gaining wisdom from its intrinsic lessons. Unfortunately for us all, the current economy probably has many more such assignments to dole out.

Our cover story this issue is all about extracting value from failure—even in a culture that glorifies winning at all costs.

“It takes both courage and some political capital to stand up and say, ‘We’ve made a mistake,'” says CIO Don Goldstein of $5 billion CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate services company. In describing the wrenching decisions that CIOs must sometimes make to halt wayward IT projects, he notes, “You make commitments. The last thing you want to do is not live up to them.”

As you read the searingly honest accounts of these lessons-learned-under-fire, you may recognize familiar scenarios from your own career. Like the time you picked a project leader who alienated the senior business team, as CIO Chris Barron of CPS Energy did. Or the time a major network outage showed just how far past its limits you’d pushed existing infrastructure, as CIO John Halamka of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center did.

Yet the resiliency that failure builds can be a definite plus on an executive résumé—the mark of a leader able to handle adversity. That’s happening in real-time for CIO Rob Fort of Virgin Megastores North America, as the company closes all its U.S. music stores and Fort manages the shutdown. “I have the desire to do this with integrity,” he says.

Indeed, integrity is never in short supply with our readers. We are especially grateful to the CIOs who so generously shared some of their most difficult personal and professional hurdles with us for this story.

As CIO Twila Day of Sysco so aptly puts it: “You learn more when something goes wrong than when everything goes right.”

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