The importance of failure

Jan 02, 2017

The winning percentage in the A/E industry is not that good, so it’s vital that you learn how to take a punch and get back up to fight again!

You’ve probably heard the quotes about Michael Jordan’s career shooting percentage being about 50 percent, meaning he missed 50 percent of his shots. Babe Ruth’s career batting average was 0.342, meaning he didn’t get a hit two-thirds of his time at the plate. And, after a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series last year.

Like many of you, I learned significant life lessons from my youth sports experiences and from the coaches I had. Sports will (or should), teach kids about hard work, hustle, teamwork, and picking yourself up when you’ve been knocked down. Learning those lessons can be a painful process, but well worth it when those kids turn into responsible, productive adults.

My sports experience also taught me that I really like to win (and I really hate losing). That competitive drive to win certainly continues to play out in our firm when we chase new projects. It’s a great feeling to get that phone call, email, or letter saying, “Congratulations, your firm has been selected.” As a business leader, we know that winning means we get to do what we love, and it also means revenue to keep our people employed. It also just feels good – that affirmation of, “We won!”

But like Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth, more often than not in the A/E industry you don’t win. According to Zweig Group research, the median hit rate to get shortlisted on proposals submitted is 22 percent, and the median win rate is 41 percent of those shortlisted. Or, stated negatively, firms don’t get shortlisted on 78 percent of the projects they pursue, and when they do make the shortlist, they lose 59 percent of the time! That’s incredible! If you’re going to stay in this industry, you better be able to take a punch and get back up to fight again!

There are numerous resources available to help A/E firms market themselves and win more work, including those at Zweig Group. A recent visit to the Zweig website shows a calendar full of seminars and webcasts with such titles as AEC Business Development Training, or Real Marketing and Branding for AEC Firms, and Growing a Profitable and Entrepreneurial AEC Firm, not to mention books like the A/E Winning Presentations Cookbook.

And that’s just a brief start. There are marketing consultants you can hire to help your firm draft a marketing plan and execute it. You can improve your staff’s personal business development skills by investing in training or joining associations designed to do that. Bottom line – if you want to improve your winning percentage, there are tons of resources available to help do that.

But, what do you do when you don’t win? Once you get through the emotions of losing (akin to any grief or loss) – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – what comes next? Here are my suggestions, from personal experience:

  1. Don’t express your anger in a way that you regret later. There will be other proposals and opportunities with that client, and you don’t want to burn bridges.
  2. Try to get constructive feedback from the owner. Sometimes that is harder than it sounds, because either they don’t want to offend you, or they don’t want to admit some factor that played into their decision. Ask if there was something that distinguished the winning firm, and if there is anything your firm can do better next time. If they offer feedback, thank them for it.
  3. Have some sort of post mortem with your team, even if it’s informal. Ask for honest opinions from your team, and then learn from the experience. Your next proposal or presentation should be better than the last.
  4. Stay encouraged! Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. It can be a real emotional letdown when you don’t win. But don’t let it keep you down. Get ‘em next time!

It’s no fun not winning the project, but after the letdown, there are lessons to be learned and improvements to be made in hopes of winning the next one. As a leader, commit your firm to learning from failure.

Matt Crafton is president and CEO of Crafton Tull, an architecture, engineering, and surveying firm based in Rogers, Arkansas. He can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.