Warning signs of failure.
Ten Signs Of Failure
Wednesday, 12 August 2009 15:12 Hrs
❝ While writing up an article on ‟ways to fail”, I realised I had stumbled on a mini—article on failure.

I define failure loosely as the ‟inability to complete a do-able task in a reasonable amount of time”. Often we fail without realising why. Recognition of one or more signs of failure might give you the time needed to triage the problem before it becomes fatal. Potential signs of failure include:


Not failing requires working hard on a regular basis. It’s uncomfortable because you have to do things you don’t want to do. If you try to avoid all discomfort, you might be limiting how hard you can work. If things are too comfortable, it could also mean you are beginning to fail.


If you can’t focus on a given task, you are by definition distracted. Distraction can be the result of interruptions [1] or trying to do many things at once. It can also be symptomatic of being demoralised and lacking motivation. Take a mental note of how many times you are disrupted in thought or action. Distraction is a measure of not working. Not working is a precursor to failure.


Low morale colours your thinking. Small problems becomes an insurmountable hurdles. The trick is not to get demoralised in the first place. If your moral is low, don’t let declining morale become a downwards spiral failure. [2] Being demoralised is a key indicator of impending failure. Be on the lookout for low morale.


You have to really want to do something to get it completed. Not having enough motivation to stick to a task leads to distraction. Lack of motivation means the hurdles you face [3] take longer, than they should. A lack of motivation is a warning sign for poor moral. If you detect lack of motivation it’s time to inject some energy back into the system to get things moving again. Motivational energy can come in many forms, one quick hack is to try and find a ‟fresh inspiration”. [4]


What we fear, be it perceived or actual can result in poor morale and lack of motivation. Fear causes you to fail because it replaces action with in-action. Controlling fear is a difficult problem. It often manifests itself irrationally for this reason it’s difficult to control. [5] Understanding what makes you fearful is a sign of potential failure. Understanding the warning signs of fear may help you conquer it.


Some things are required to be done in a measured amount of time. If you are not fast enough, you will fail. If the task is do-able and you are slipping, are you working hard enough?; are you distracted or have poor morale? Do you lack motivation? Are you fearful? The lack of progress could be any one of the above. It could also be your response to stress. You could be choking.


For any given task stress, can cause neutralise competence by forcing you to revert back to implicit (learning) rather than explicit (learnt) responses. [6] By any means choking occurs more with the competent and seasoned rather than the beginner. If you become aware you are taking more time to do things or having difficulty you could be choking. [7]


Achieving milestones requires effort. At the end of a milestone a small amount of energy is required to be input to start the new milestone. If you don’t you lose the momentum of completing the milestone and replace it with lethargy of starting from scratch. [8]


Flexibility is an asset. If you are too stubborn and refuse to be flexible it can result in poor decisions or an unrecoverable mistake . Stubbornness can be thought of as another form of fear. The inability to take another course of action because of the unknown result. It could also be an unwillingness to work hard. Stubbornness might also be a sign of stress and choking.


It’s entirely possible to fail because of circumstances beyond your control. Sometimes things go wrong through no fault of your own. Are you flexible enough for a ‟Plan B” alternative? Will you be unable to correct the mistake due to fear? Will you choke? Will you find an alternative solution in time?

No doubt there are more signals of failure. Some of the signs of failure might seem obvious, others you might not even be aware of. So if you feel things are not quite right, make a quick mental check of the ‟signs” to avoid failure.


[0] I’m looking at individual failure, not team failure which involves a different set of problems. I’m fascinated by the topic of failure because in high-tech software Startups 19/20 will probably fail. Why? The ‟10 signs of failure” is one of a number of articles I’ll be writing on the ‟dark side” of Startups. The image I’ve used is from the film of the William Golding book, ‟Lord of the Flies”. The original image, [Accessed Wednesday, August 12, 2009]

and is also part of a flickr set called ‟Taming the dogs of code”, [Accessed Wednesday, August 12, 2009],

[1] The kind of distraction I’m thinking of here is ‟Continuous partial attention”, (CPA) coined by Linda Stone. You can follow @LindaStone on twitter at:

You can read more about CPA at:

[2] A downwards spiral failure often happens when people get lost in the bush. They get demoralised, give up and wait to die.

[3] And there will be hurdles to overcome.

[4] Just should think of motivation as a force to keep you moving past hurdles. Just as you add energy to push a marble up a slope to overcome potential energy hill, you should use motivation to push you through hurdles to avoid poor morale.

[5] One solution is to be aware of the physical signs of fear. Then act quickly when you are at your most rational. Understand that fear gives you an edge because you can use it to ‟temper” overconfidence.

[6] A twitter message I sent to @jonoxer (John Oxer) ‟... ‟Head + brick wall = pain” is it hacker choke? ~ http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_08_21_a_choking.htm #gladwell #art #failure” In the article Gladwell explains the neurological reasons for choking and the difference between panic and choking. [Accessed Wednesday, August 12, 2009]

[7] @jonoxer (John Oxer) replied when sitting for 5hours and not getting anywhere: ‟@bootload Fascinating distinction between choking and panicking, I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think I choked.” [Accessed Wednesday, August 12, 2009]

[8] I suspect adding a bit more motivational energy is required to overcome the post-milestone slump.

Thanks to Pip Lincolne (@meetmeatmikes) for reading over the draft.


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