Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Think about it. How many meaningful successes have you had in your life that didn’t take almost dogged commitment and gritty determination? If I had a nickel for every time a business leader told me, “We tried that and it didn’t work,” I’d have pockets overflowing with nickels. If given the opportunity, I try to help them investigate the operative words, “tried” and “didn’t work”.

Let’s start with “tried”.  “We did that for two months…” “We worked with a company once…” “We hired a guy once…” From my seat, for various reasons that there isn’t enough space for here, we have come to expect almost everything in our lives to be easy, fast, evident and gratifying. Be careful not to marginalize what I’m about to say. Some things do come easy, happen quickly, are obvious and create gratification, but they are not very often the important, strategic, and most meaningful things. When it comes to business, there are very few instant successes.

I’ve sold millions of dollars of products and services, but have lost multiples of that amount to the competition. I’ve owned five companies; one failed. I’ve embarked on scores of strategies, unremarkably not all bared fruit. But, when I’ve been successful it has largely been due to persistence and commitment that has incrementally increased my learning, allowing me to logically adjust and continue on my journey to success. This is hard work. To stop something is much easier than serious contemplation about how you might decide to proceed. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, and yes, even years. I know what you’re thinking… I hope he’s not trying to tell me to keep doing the same thing again and again and expect different results. No I’m not. Remember the “learning” and “logically adjust” piece. If your learning doesn’t present logical adjustments that will reasonably lead to success, abandon and redirect resources.

Now for … it “didn’t work”. This is a tricky one. I find there are two extremes in most answers; one brutally objective and the other subjective and often times emotional, packed with likes and dislikes and sometimes power and politics.

We have all learned the value of a good ROI evaluation, but when DuPont introduced the concept, I’m guessing they never expected it to be the mantra of all business decision making. Can every strategic initiative be codified and have a life confined to an ROI calculation? I suggest not; however, this is often the dogma of those who will tell me something “didn’t work”. Might some effort or investment in itself not have a direct ROI, yet be useful to the larger business system? Without boring you with my suggested list, I’m expecting you can come up with a number of investments that don’t have positive or direct ROI, but are necessary for business success or add meaningful value to your model.

As if the black and white tendencies of the organizational scorekeepers aren’t enough, now you need to contend with the emotionally charged likes and dislikes and power and politics that develop from most investments. The only way I’ve ever been able to overcome these objections in my businesses or in consulting clients is to require dialogue… a healthy exchange of ideas, concerns, fears and hopes, dreams and expectations. Often times, the most important is expectation management. When initiating any significant effort, you should be diligent about building consensus on and understanding best possible outcome and minimum expected outcome. Rarely are either of those outcomes exactly produced, but by being sure that everyone who should have an opinion is heard, their position understood and a consensus is drawn, the expectation of certain outcomes can be measured and managed. Remember, direct results are not the only results of any effort. Every effort produces results, some good and others insignificant, but understanding those “externalities” is critical to gaining an understanding of whether something is working or not.

So, the next time you hear, “We tried that… it didn’t work,” spend some time understanding and defining “tried” and “didn’t work”.

“My guess is that as you gain further knowledge, logically adjust your course and build consensus on the definition of success, you will improve your chances for meaningful, positive long-term results.”