Discussing your past failures with potential clients

It is common practice and very legitimate for potential clients to look at your track record as he/she accesses your potential candidacy to serve as an OD consultant.

Each and every one of us have failed. Certainly I have had some failures in my 38 year career. In this post I will relate to way and means of handling the question of past failures with prospective clients in initial interviews.

(If you have positioned yourself as a vendor of products and tools, you will not find this  post useful. Clearly, in such a case, you may need to relate to the mismatch between the tool/product and the client, defend/blame the tool itself or even the client, as do our confreres in software! 😉 )

This post relates to those of us who see OD as professional service of trusted advisor who supports change efforts.

Following are a few selected suggestions how to field questions about past failures.

1) A failed relationship

The professional relationship between an OD service provider and client is “a service delivered in the context of a relationship”. Like all relationships, client-OD relationships do not always succeed. And often, neither side knows this will be case at the initial stage on engagement.

2) Something  you cannot disclose so as not to compromise your former client

Clearly while you cannot discuss the nature of the failure and compromise your former clients integrity, you may encounter pressure to do so.

In that case, it is best to say, “if I do not succeed here with you, I imagine you will not want me to discuss this with potential clients in the future.”

3) Disagreement on Direction

It is common in our field to have irreconcilable differences even if the personal relationship with the client is trusting. In such a case, both the client and the OD consultant face hard decisions, and this was such a a case.

4) The intervention failed

The OD intervention failed. OD has not been boiled down to a set of algorithms whereby I  can promise success. In any OD intervention, there is a risk of failure. Sometimes we know the reason for failure, and sometimes we don’t.

One more point. I have found it very useful to prod a bit before answering. An example:

Client: Tell me about a recent failure.

Allon: What type of failure are you referring to?

Client: When the staff did not “believe” in consultants.

Allon: The way I work is that someone very senior owns me and it is not a question of “belief”. Do you plan to ask me to sell myself to your staff?

Client: I cannot decide on hiring you without the buy-in of my team!

Allon: Is this characteristic of your decision making?

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4 thoughts on “Discussing your past failures with potential clients

  1. This post is a significant one. I have been asked the same question on a large contract with the military. They did not seem to mind the failure so much as how I had learnt from it. In Canadian military practice, when senior officers come back from a mission, there is a practice of holding double-loop learning sessions. At these sessions, the commanding officer relates his/her key failure in the mission. The audience then explores the “failure” using double-loop learning processes from just about every angle you can imagine. If the mission is still on-going, the learnings become part of the briefing for senior officers who will be pursuing the mission. I went through the same process when they hired me.

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