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4 Reasons That Things Fail – An Interview with Gordon Tredgold

Sterling Sweeney

Last Updated:  

1 April 2020

8 min read

There are only 4 reasons why things fail: Lack of focus, lack of accountability, lack of simplicity and lack of transparency.

SurveySparrow, the maker of widely celebrated online survey software, was recently fortunate enough to chat with Gordon Tredgold, a business leadership expert. Today, we’ll have the opportunity to pick Gordon’s brain about why projects fail and what we can do to give our projects a better chance at success. So let’s jump in!

SurveySparrow: Hello, thank you for joining us today to talk about your experience in the leadership space. Let’s have you kick off the interview by telling us a little bit more about how you got involved in this space? 

Gordon: Hello, and thanks for inviting me and giving me this opportunity. How did I get involved in leadership? To be honest I think I should start with “why”, as I think that’s more interesting to your audience.

When I was around 10 years of age I played rugby, and I was in a team that won as many games as we lost, and yet somehow we made it to the cup final. There we were, scheduled to play the team who had won the league and had beaten us twice, 35-0 and 15-0. So it didn’t bode well for the final.

Yet our coach came up with a game plan, one which leveraged our best capabilities, he gave our team the belief that we were going to shock them and beat them. On the day of the finals, we executed our plan and won 6-3.

This showed me the power of leadership, how it can take a group of players and get them to outperform the sum of their individual capabilities.

With the right strategy, the right approach and with good teamwork, teams can achieve so much more than they initially think.

This got me passionate about leadership. I am a problem solver too, so I always wanted to have a shot at creating strategies and solutions to help come up with plans to achieve goals, overcome challenges and improve performance.

When it came to my career I worked in IT, and there were lots of challenges, and I always looked for the toughest ones, because I thought I could help and also it offered a good path for promotion. If you can succeed in the toughest projects, then that’s going to get you noticed and put you in demand.

When I first started, a lot of the challenges were more technical in nature, but as I progressed and moved onto bigger challenges, they became much more about the people aspect. Getting people engaged, getting them inspired, creating the belief that helps drive change. And I found I was just as good at that as I was at solving problems and this put me in a position where I was leading $100m programs and leading departments of 1000 people.

After doing that for many years, and having achieved a good deal of success, I decided I wanted to share the approach I was using (which seemed popular with my teams).

I wanted to try it in a way that helped people understand and implement it themselves. And once I started writing, and speaking on leadership, I found that I had a passion for it and that I had a style and approach that people appreciated.

SurveySparrow: Can you tell us a little bit more about what the FAST approach is?

Gordon: While taking on the difficult challenges, and becoming a turnaround artist, I had an approach that I used which involved understanding the reasons why things fail, doing the root cause analysis and then fixing these problems.

This gave me a great insight into what causes things to fail, and what I noticed was that there was a common pattern and at the highest level there are only 4 reasons why things fail.

Lack of focus, lack of accountability, lack of simplicity and a lack of transparency, and that if you fix each of these and perform well in these areas then success becomes a much higher likelihood.

Focus is about the “What”. It’s about having clarity with your goals and objectives. Too often these can be blurred and when we lack focus it kills our effectiveness.

Accountability is about the “Who”. Do we know who is involved, have we given clear instructions, and do we know how we will help to hold them accountable.

Simplicity is crucial, this is about the “How”. Have we kept it as simple as possible, does everyone know how we will succeed. Complexity kills execution, and the more we can minimize it the more successful we will be.

Transparency is about understanding What’s Involved, do we know the full scope of work and do we have a chance to succeed, and then it’s about having the performance feedback so we can know whether we need to change tack or not.

If you take care of these four things, then you will be FAST and will succeed more.

SurveySparrow: Very interesting. You focus a lot on subjects relating to performance. In one of your speeches, you talked about the importance of finding the “truth” within your performance. How do you personally go about uncovering the truth of performance, and what are some of the biggest mistakes you see people make when it comes to this topic? 

Gordon: Truth is critical. You need to know how you are performing because then you can assess your approach and if it’s working, great, if not adjust your approach.

So, I focus on measuring outcomes, measuring the results as that’s the only way to get to the truth. I am not really interested in how you feel it’s going, I am looking for objective data because it helps us understand how we are truly performing. And sometimes we are doing better than we think, but if we can’t see that then it can kill morale and motivation.

SurveySparrow: You also believe in the importance of “simple” plans. How do you go about creating systems or feedback loops that allow you to know if your plan has been designed as simply as possible? Why is this important? 

Gordon: Yes, this is difficult, but with practice, you will get better at it. One aspect of simplicity is ‘understanding’.

By that I mean do people know how you will be successful, can they see it step by step, and do they believe it is achievable?

When you have that, then people become inspired, excited even. Whereas if you can’t see or understand how success will be achieved then engagement drops quickly. People are not afraid of hard work, they are afraid of failure and we need to show them how they can succeed, just like how my rugby team was shown.

Here are a couple of tips on finding simpler solutions. First, it’s important to know that complex solutions are easy to find, so just having a solution is not enough. We need to ask, is there a simpler solution? Don’t just stop at the first solution you find.

Second, challenge everything. Ask why do we need to do that, and if there is no good reason then let’s stop it or change it.

Lastly, I would say ask yourself how you would achieve something if you only had 20% of the time. This will cause you to think differently. Instead of trying to improve what you do by 5 or 10%, it requires you to look for new and different solutions and this opening of your mind will help make new and better strategies. It doesn’t always work, but that opening of your mind is a critical step in becoming a master of simplicity.

SurveySparrow: Another topic you’re passionate about is failure. In fact, in one of your talks you mentioned that you’re an expert at failure. What do you mean by this and why is failing important to you? 

Gordon: The more you understand failure, the better you know what causes it, then the easier it is to put mitigating processes in place in order to avoid it. As I mentioned before, there are only four real causes of failure, and when you understand that it gives you a great opportunity to avoid it and put winning strategies together.

I also find now that when I look at projects or departments and ask about Focus, Accountability, Simplicity and Transparency, it very quickly helps me to understand where the problems lie, and then once you know that you can start working on them.

SurveySparrow: How do you measure your failure? 

Gordon: I tend to think of failure as not achieving the goals you set out to achieve. So by having clear, objective, truth-based measurements, you can see how you are doing, and if it looks like you’re failing to meet your targets then you can adjust your strategy to put yourself back on track.

So it’s about understanding how you will measure progress and how you are doing against that plan of progress.

SurveySparrow: In one of your speeches, you talk about the importance of vision and transparency. You told a story where you missed a target because you had no “visibility” (because your phone died). What do you mean by this and how does this apply to the world of business? 

Gordon: To win a race you have to cross the finish line, and sometimes you have to do it within a specific timeframe. So in order to be successful, you need to know where you are and how you are doing against those targets, but if you can’t see your progress then how do you know when to stop, or put in a little bit more effort to get over that line, or hit the date we are aiming for.

I have seen so many incidents where people have done great work but failed because they didn’t know where the finishing line is. This was what happened to me in the race, I wanted to run the marathon in under 5hrs, I knew where I needed to be at 1 hr, 2 hrs, 3hrs etc and I had an app that told me how I was doing.

And after 4hrs and 15 minutes I was ahead of schedule, but then my phone died and I lacked that feedback. The result was that I high fived too many people, I took a couple of rests too many and I ended up finishing in 5hrs and 9 seconds.

I failed because of 9 seconds, which if I had known how close I was I could have just put in a little bit more effort. But I didn’t, and I snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

SurveySparrow: Part of your job involves helping companies re-engage disengaged employees. In fact, on your website you mention that research shows for each disengaged employee, it costs the company $3400 per year for every $10,000 of their salary. What are some strategies you’ve seen used to successfully re-engage employees? 

Gordon: Surprise, surprise. My main strategy is to use FAST. Especially Focus and Simplicity. When you can let everyone know what the goal is, and also why it’s important, it’s much easier for them to engage. With simplicity, people can see how they will succeed which will make them feel empowered and confident.

We all want to work in a job where we can succeed, we all want to be on a winning team so when you can create that clarity of objective and give confidence, then it is a big boost to engagement.

SurveySparrow: As a turnaround expert, if you were to walk into any business today that was falling short of hitting its targets, what are the three things you would change first and why?

Gordon: I would look to apply FAST. Normally I would see how they are performing in those four areas, do a rating, and then work on fixing the issues in the area they scored lowest. Then work through those. Then, go through each area until they were doing well in each of them. Simple as that – although let’s be clear it isn’t always easy

SurveySparrow: You also talk a lot about the importance of the development of high-performance cultures. What are the common symptoms of companies with low-performance cultures and what are some remedies you would prescribe to such companies? 

Gordon: I think the challenges are that companies are not FAST, they are struggling in one of those areas, which then impacts performance.

It can also be due to leadership issues, I see far too many poor leaders and also toxic leaders. People who don’t know how to engage people, or have a personality which actually disengages them.

Recognition is key, people want to feel valued, feel that they are appreciated, but some companies are stingy with recognition, which is bizarre because it costs nothing, and yet can have a hugely beneficial impact.

Leaders need to focus on creating cultures of success, use the FAST approach, reward and recognise people for those successes and then you will have to take great strides to embed that into your culture.

People want to be successful, so as leaders it’s our job to show them how and then recognize them for it.

It really is as simple as that!

This has been a very insightful interview. Thank you Gordon. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about Gordon and the work he does, you can follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.

Sterling Sweeney

Sterling Sweeney is a growth hacker and the founder of WhalePages, a SaaS marketing agency which is a platform designed to help SaaS companies scale.

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