When Your Mission Becomes a Failure, How Will You Cope?

First, I want to say I created a new assessment that I would love for you to try. It could radically improve your ability to hire the right people the first time. I’ll tell you what it is, where it came from, and give you the link at the end of this article. The context matters, and the context is my most recent failures.

To say the recent rebranding of Clear and Open didn’t go how I had expected would be a lie by omission. I made some big mistakes, and it’s been very difficult. I’ve learned a lot. Some useful distinctions come to mind that will likely help you on your next big project. Let’s distinguish between a mission and an adventure.

A mission is carefully planned and assiduously executed. It must go exactly how it’s supposed to. We love missions as triumphs of control over the chaos inherent in life. The truth is that we want most things to be missions, and they’re usually not. Things almost never go as planned, and so they become adventures despite our intentions.

An adventure has a clear beginning and end, but you don’t know what’s going to happen in the middle. I think of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings: the ring has to get to Mordor and they have no idea what will happen along the way. When a mission becomes an adventure, we have a choice: surrender or suffer.

So last fall when I planned the mission of rebranding Clear and Open, I naively imagined it would be a simple, three-month process that would go exactly how I wanted: on time, on budget, and inside my comfort zone. Yeah, it didn’t go that way.

Like many missions, it started out great. Energy and optimism were abundant. My amazing designer took a simple, two-word phrase—luxury zen—and interpreted it better than I could have imagined, nailing the perfect look and feel in the first draft.

When I reflected on it, I discovered something else: it challenged me in a way I didn’t expect. The liberal white space, the austere brush strokes, the unique font—it all made me uncomfortable, in a way that whispered, “There’s a bigger you that will fill this space. Become that.”

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the mission started to go off the rails. The developer I hired turned out not to understand the concept of “deadline.” When held the slightest bit accountable, he became passive aggressive. He ignored pleas to update his deadlines when they had passed. He created confusion and delays.

For example, when he asked a question in a task, he would reassign the task to whom he asked the question. He marked tasks complete that were not, and other members of the team had to check his work and reopen tasks. All of his work required supervision.

In the end, he began to pick and choose what parts of the site he felt like doing. We were already three months behind, and his actions made it clear he wanted out.

What maddened me most was not his imperfections, but that when I reflected them to him, he never once acknowledged the negative impact he had or showed any intention to change. Of course, it was ultimately my responsibility as the person who hired him.

Another problem with my mission was that nobody was really managing it. I thought my sweet, hard-working, deeply caring assistant was doing it. But I realized too late that she just couldn’t remain consistent. Stuff kept coming up in her life that caused balls to drop. Each time she assured me it was the last time, and each time it wasn’t. I felt like I could never relax and take my eye off marketing.

I should have listened to my inner mentor when the balls kept getting dropped. “Hire slow, fire fast,” I thought to myself many times.

I kept rationalizing my decision to keep her through the redesign. “Don’t change horses midstream,” I thought. “That will just create more hassle.” This would have been a great plan if the new website hadn’t been repeatedly delayed by the developer.  

I realize now that the deeper problem there really lay with me not examining and understanding what I really need. It wasn’t so much that I had hired the wrong VA, but that I’d hired for the wrong position. Like an actor or a pop star, I need an agent—not an assistant. Someone to plan and coordinate and tell me when and where to show up. I need to be free to create and serve, because while I’m capable of project managing, marketing, and even some basic web work, I can’t do that stuff and generate content and mentor people at the same time.

As my mission began to go up in flames, I went through the five stages of grief:

Denial: “Hmm, there’s a lot left to do, and the launch date is in less than a month. But I’m sure the team is on it and working behind the scenes.” (Not so much.)

Anger: “WTF! Why wouldn’t you tell me ahead of time that we’re missing the deadline?” (Deaf ears from the developer)

Bargaining: “Okay, you tell me when our launch date should be, and we’ll work around that.” (Refusal)

Depression: “The human species is doomed and this is all pointless.” (Unsurprisingly, not productive)

Acceptance: “Okay, what’s the absolute minimum we need to get done in order to launch?” (This worked)

That was the moment where I finally fully engaged and managed the project like it needed to be.

The crazy thing is, I know all about what it takes to be a great leader, and I coach great leaders every day on team accountability and engagement and where the breakdowns are. But I just didn’t embody any of that in this project.

Why? Oh, that’s easy. Because the debut of a design that so obviously puts me out there as a spiritual teacher for business people scares the hell out of me. Just managing that emotion was a project in and of itself, and it was happening on such a deep level I barely noticed it.

I let this emotion stop me from doing my part of the job.

The mission was a failure, but the adventure a success. Such is the nature of an adventure: you encounter unexpected hardships that challenge you to grow. The more quickly you can abandon the mission mindset and embrace the journey, the more you’ll be able to receive the lessons life has for you. (Click to Tweet)

Needless to say, I learned a great deal about my own resistance and how it operates, and I finally feel ready to do some things that are very difficult for me: to be visible, to stand for my gifts, to use visual design, and to position myself so I can explore what’s truly possible for Clear and Open.

I have reflected many times on my initial interview with the web developer and where I didn’t dig deep enough. I was so eager to get the project going that I didn’t realize how much I was ignoring the signs that he would be less than responsible. Naïveté is one of my Achilles’ heels. It’s the shadow side of idealism.

That reflection birthed an idea: what if there were an assessment that could determine how responsible people are—their ability to truly own a project? It’s the single hardest thing to determine in an interview, because it’s what people know they most need to perform and convince you of.

It will likely need some revisions, but if it works, it will be an incredibly powerful tool. I’d love for you to try it out and let me know what you think.

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