The Postmortem of a Failure: How to Evaluate & Even Avoid Failure

by Colleene Isaacs

“Why did I fail? I did it by the book. I listened to my advisors. I corrected course based on what others recommended…”

“The business was a good idea, the timing was probably just off…”

“I knew I was in God’s will. He would provide and make it successful. How could I go wrong with Him on my side? I can’t figure out what happened…”

Does any of this sound familiar? Has this, or a variation of this, narrative been your own?

If this has been your own experience, how do you begin to dissect and understand what happened?

The Standard Reasons for Failure?

Most business experts can easily recite the top five to seven reasons for business failure. However, the reality is… the reasons for failure in any particular business cannot be summarily reduced to a quick list.

The manner in which we think about our failures is flawed, because we are flawed. Failure is multi-faceted, and complex, just like the humans who craft the scenarios in which failure thrives. 

I believe that when we think about failure – our own failure – we can’t remove ourselves from the final equation. We tend to think more readily of ourselves as the masters of our success, yet we are equally the masters of our failure.

God Created Us to Think “Whole-istically”

God created humans to think like Him about his creation. He created us in His image – the Imago Dei – and to think about and operate within His creation “whole-istically:” When sin corrupted his plan, his image in us did not change. What did change was our perception of, and response to, His imprinted image. Let me explain…

I Am More Than Just “Business Me”

Whole-istic thinking does not come easily to us. We tend to compartmentalize the many tangible, as well as intangible, elements of God’s creation – from the spiritual to the physical to the social. We rarely consider our work from the perspective of the integrated whole, even though his creation is the embodiment of intricately designed inter-dependencies.

When I walk out the door to head to the office each morning, I don’t just bring the business side of me. Accompanying “business me” is the spiritual, emotional, and physical boxes that make up the total package of “me.”

Tucked within those boxes are all the problems, concerns and anxieties I thought I left safely locked up on the other side of the door. Some of us are better at hiding certain boxes than others. However, for most of us, some of those unwanted boxes will eventually make it into our business domain. No matter the mechanisms we construct to prevent this.

This ability to create and operate within “islands” of life is how we attempt to exist within our structures, systems and institutions. Not to say this is entirely wrong, however, I believe it is incomplete and gives us an incomplete perspective.

Flawed Failure Postmortems

When we undergo the process of evaluating business failure, our postmortems tend to look at the cross sections rather than the integrated whole of the business. If a doctor attempts to diagnose a brain problem from a tissue sample or cross section, rather than an entire brain scan, the bigger problem will most likely remain undiagnosed. Is it any wonder all prevailing business wisdom comes from looking in the rear-view mirror? Every situation is always contextual. This is why Good to Great eventually morphed into How the Mighty Fall. No two companies carry the same context or the same humans. Each has DNA unique to that organization

When highly paid consultants walk into a dysfunctional or failing organization, most will only look at discrete organizational cross sections. They will study the financials, marketing strategies, sales quotas, customer demographics, management experience, etc. Many don’t have the time or understanding to look into the”command and control” center of the organization. The unspoken burdens, the cultural sticking points, the deeply rooted behavior patterns that originated in childhood, the fixed, often unbending mindset of the founder or CEO. All of these narratives coalesce to give rise to the eventual toppling of the organization

Evaluating and Doing Business in a More Wholistic Way

How then do we seek to understand, learn and apply the lessons learned from our unique experiences? How do we reframe our narrative so we are less likely to fail catastrophically in the first place?

Here are some suggestions:

Consider your “Why”

As founders/CEO’s we have been given a vision for our work. The problem is we immediately build our plans, and execute to ultimate vision, instead of starting with what we have initially been given (think lowest hanging fruit). We don’t allow the Master Designer to craft towards the vision at his pace and in His time, changing course, and bringing resources as He has planned. Abraham was given a vision for his inheritance, but that is not where he began. He was given Isaac as the starting point. God crafted the rest of that story in a manner that Abraham would have never conceived. We are given the vision – not to understand and create the exact 5-year plan for how we will get there – but to fuel us in our reason “why” we do what we do. Our “vision” is the reason we get out of bed every morning.

Consider your operational style

Our origins and behavior patterns established as young people, will be key in the formation of the operational styles we employ as adults. I work with a young woman who grew up in difficult circumstances, faced with many life obstacles. It was the behavioral style she developed as a child to overcome obstacles that has heavily influenced her operational style as a young CEO. The reactive nature she developed in her youth has not always served her well as a founder. She is often over-reactive, and tends to respond to the “tyranny of the urgent.” It has been difficult for her to approach her organization from a strategic and intentional mindset. Her plans are lacking and her focus is weak. This may be great for PR, but it won’t bring her to a strong, sustainable organization. She’ll need to learn to wisely prioritize her limited resources, recognize her deficits, and bring in the talent necessary to complement her skills.

Consider your ability/inability to be transparent

Much like first date behavior, we always want to put the best foot forward. This is especially true with potential funding partners, donors, key employees and partners. We want people to see us, our plans, our business, our vision from a visualized picture of perfection. We don’t want to let people into the messy truths of our lives, and for good reason. When we let people get a glimpse of the real “ick” we have going on, there is every potential for harsh criticism, judgement and possibly disengagement.

If you are reading this pre-failure, ask yourself, “If this is how I’m presenting myself and my business, will I glorify God in my misrepresentation?” If you are going through this exercise post-failure, the question becomes “Was I living this lie to my closest constituencies?”A very wise piece of advice I once heard was to always lead with your key weaknesses. Let people know that you know you have the potential to fail. And give them the reasons why failure could be a real possibility. You are not fooling anyone (except for yourself) when you attempt to paint a perfect picture of a company that is already well on the road to success. A few good books I would put on the top of my list in helping you to realize and conquer this self-deception is Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, and Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute.

Recognize the danger of isolation

We can’t do this alone. Don’t even attempt it. God created us to operate with others in all facets of life. To all the women entrepreneurs out there, I am shouting this at you, as for some reason women often feel they have to do it alone and are very reluctant to ask for help.

No person possesses every talent and skill required to build a successful organization. Behind every charismatic and successful entrepreneur is an entire organization of well-equipped, smart thinking, empowered individuals. If you don’t have the ability at your current stage to bring in all the right talent, you need to beg, borrow and steal to get the right people to pour into you with the “right stuff” until you can bring in the complete team. If you are afraid to ask for help, then you have no business doing what your doing.

Think of the world the way our Lord does

This is where I believe a good many of God’s people woefully miss the mark. We are to be in the world, but not of it. Use whatever worldly resources are at your disposal to promote and grow your organization. Jesus created all things good. There is a lot of good stuff out there, use it for His glory in building your company. Think craftily about how you will tackle the problems of competition, corruption, gaining favor, scaling your business. Read the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Think of how your enemies and opponents would act in any given situation, then use that knowledge and understanding, undergirded by His Spirit in you to outsmart them at their own game. Be shrewd as serpents, we are fighting on a battleground, and there is much at stake. Be shrewd, but be gentle, do no wrong. You may only get one opportunity to do what you are doing. Understand the world you are operating in. You will be less likely to be deceived by what you understand.

Rethink your business model

We look to the world for the foundational principles of our business. Let’s go back to the basics of who God created us to be, and how we should be operating within his creation model. From our funding models, to our operational models, to our employee engagement models and more. How this plays out will be different, based on your context. But his Word contains the wealth of wisdom by which we should be patterning our practices. For example, should an investment term sheet be looking at something different rather than only returning wealth to the few investors? Should it be a more comprehensive document? Investment is not financial only, investment is spiritual, mental, emotional, relational, and physical. What could a God-honoring, people lifting, life reconciling, Jesus centered investment term sheet really look like if we put our best brains in a room to craft it? Dare to think different about what he has given you, and how he wants you to steward it.

Use what he has given you wisely, and use it to its fullness. What you have today may not be here tomorrow. Failing at business should not be an expectation or a foregone conclusion. Operate and think like you’re going to win. Our attitudes and the mindset we adopt in our lives directly correlate to our behaviors and actions. People who think like winners tend to act like winners. You are in this to win, not for yourself, but for the Master Designer.

colleene2Colleene Isaacs
 serves as an advisor to early stage kingdom-focused startups and assists non-profit organizations in under-developed economies to develop sustainable models for income generation. Colleene has over 27 years of business experience and has been the founder of her own restaurant business, as well as a co-founder of a technology-based company. She has served in various management roles for technology companies, including training and development, customer service, business and channel development, and marketing. Colleene has been married to Robert, her high school sweetheart, for 40 years and they have 2 children and 3 grandchildren. Colleene is passionate about using her gifts to help others discover and live out their unique God-imprinted design for His kingdom purpose.

Colleene serves as a regular mentor on our ‘Ask a BAM Mentor‘ panel.


Read more from Colleene on Bootstrapping your Business vs Seeking Outside Investment