Stepping Out of Failure

I had an interesting conversation this week about whether to focus on outputs or outcomes.

Conventional wisdom holds that great strategy starts with outcomes as a core focus.

But outputs directly affect the outcome – and outcomes direct the output – so it can seem like a “chicken and egg” discussion. 

Still, conventional wisdom holds that great strategy starts with outcomes as a core focus.

In content strategy, many businesses measure content outputs (how many blog posts, white papers, e-books, videos, and so on) rather than content outcomes (the impact the content has).

But what happens when you fail to produce the intended outcome? I don’t mean the warm-and-fuzzy type of failure like the content didn’t produce the quota of leads or the SEO bump you expected. 

I mean those trip and crack your skull type failures. I mean The Last Airbender movie level of failure. I mean Richard Nixon thinking a tape recorder in his office is a good idea kind of fail. 

This is the kind of failure I discussed with a content marketer last week. They told me they’d recently put together a thought leadership campaign to drive awareness of the company’s ideas and brand. The project failed spectacularly. Without going into too much detail, let’s say there were memes of their #Fail going around in their industry. The campaign turned into a joke. The outputs had definitely not created the outcomes they desired. 

My friend felt defeated and lost.    

When failure rears its head, some people feel hopeless and start to withdraw. Some get angry and blame others. Some disassociate from whatever comes next. “It’s not my problem,” they say. “I didn’t do this. Somebody else made it happen. I’m ignoring it.” And they withdraw and stop creating outputs altogether.

But you must do the opposite. Keep moving. Take steps. Put one foot after the other.

In content and marketing, we often talk about beginning with the outcomes in mind. We envision success and then work backward, creating a grand map to achieve it. We plot the outputs. We know that this process works. 

In the face of disempowering failure, this process can seem beyond reach. If you can’t imagine what the outcome will look like, how can you plot the steps to get there?

Try this instead. Simply ask, “Now what?” 

Then do something. There’s always something you can try, even something seemingly inconsequential. Make a phone call. Write a note. Create something and share it. Whatever action calls to you, do that.

Then ask again: “Now what?” The answer may be tentative: “Well, we could take this step.” Give that a go. 

In other words, focus on outputs. 

Then ask again: “And now what?” Another step will suggest itself. Keep going. 

At first, you may find asking “now what?” results in nothing but hoping for the best. While hope may be, as Andy Dufresne said in Shawshank Redemption, “the best of things,” hope alone won’t give you firm footing. 

But keep moving. Eventually, a path appears (to borrow the title of a book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn).

When failure to achieve the outcome you desired has you paralyzed, your first step back is to focus on output. Do the next thing. Then the next. Keep asking, “And now what?” until a new outcome that you desire appears. Then, begin again.

It’s your story. Tell it well.


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