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  D.F.'s Column Archive

August 2, 2006

‘Failure Points’: Kinder, Gentler Screwups


So a guy comes to see me about doing some business with my company.  As he’s telling me about his firm I hop onto their web site for a look. He is a partner, one of two. But when I look at their leadership profiles, I see the other partner, but not him.


“Where are you?” I ask.


“Yeah,” he says. “We haven’t got me on there yet. That’s a failure point.”


A what?


“A failure point. That’s a failure point.”


I stare at him.


“You mean a screwup.”


He nods. “Well, yeah.”


I am so mean. The business world keeps inventing all these kinder and gentler ways of talking about bad things, and I keep peeling back the veneers to reveal the khaki-colored incisors underneath.


I mean the “decay points.”


Apparently there are those for whom failure just doesn’t seem quite so bad, provided the word “point” is used to modify the description. It’s just a point. Points don’t mean much. Even a free-throw is worth a point, and those are easy to make unless you’re Shaquille O’Neal or Ben Wallace.


Far worse, I suppose, would be a failure geyser, which just sprays the stuff high in the air and douses anyone within a certain radius with hot, salty failure. Some companies have failure quarters – like mine in the first quarter of a certain year that starts with a two and ends with a six. Those turn into failure halves, and pretty soon your CEO turns into a failure on two legs.


Failure is not the only thing to which people in business like to attach meaningless modification with the word “point.” Prices are another. If you are trying to sell stuff, and you are really sophisticated, you don’t discuss prices. You discuss “price points.”


“At this price point,” you tell the manufacturer, “we can expect to move volume on the order of 12,000 units.”


Ah! The manufacturer writes that down. You are wise and knowledgeable.


But if you say it like this – “At that price you’ll sell 12,000 of those things” – your colleagues bury their faces in their hands and the manufacturer starts looking at his watch.


Uh oh! Major failure point for you! They’re hiring at Taco Bell if that’s how you’re going to talk.


Perhaps there’s something to be said for softening the language that describes some of our shortcomings in business. That quarter in which I lost all that money? If I could figure out a way to somehow label it a “loss leader,” it might make me feel a little better. But I’d still be financing against my receivables to make payroll.


Either way, adding the word “point” to really bad words like failure, embezzlement, layoff or bankruptcy doesn’t really make these things sound any better to me. Perhaps Jeffrey Skilling will soon start looking beyond his recent conviction point – if he can see past those bars he’ll be behind.


If it seems too hurtful to call something a screwup, I propose we just go all the way with the language manipulation and call it a “triumph”. It sounds a heck of a lot better than “failure point,” and it advances the principle that anything you do in business – including self-delusion – deserves 100 percent commitment at all times.


© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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