How do I move forward from a poor performance at a place I want to work?
September 16, 2019 1:05 PM   Subscribe

I've been in my industry nearly 10 years, director level. I fell in love with a little offshoot of my giant company, where they operate much the way a start-up does as they develop new business concepts: gather insights, ideate, do rapid prototyping, test/learn and eventually implement the best concepts. I do have pretty significant experience on the insights side, and in an objective sort of way (or so say past bosses and colleagues in anonymous peer reviews), I am really strong/known for good work in the ideation space: brainstorming, dreaming up new solutions/concepts, getting everyone to think differently, take risks, and get inspired. My recent projects have had excellent results. A contact invited me to an ideation workshop there. And my group did a terrible job. Help!

After a couple of coffees with contacts who work at this "start-up," call it, I got feedback that the role I wanted might be a bit out of reach (my background is strong on the insights/ideation side, weak on the start-up/business/revenue experience side; typically they would hire someone with a few more years of experience than I have) but that I should come participate in an ideation workshop, which happened to be on a topic I've been working on for the past 3 years.

I was VERY excited. I was hoping for a chance at some point to showcase in real time some of what I do best, to see if there might be some sort of fit for me somewhere within the org, even if it wasn't where I first imagined myself. They sent out the brief the day before and I read it carefully. I jotted down some thought-starters (I had many ideas!) but figured I would wait for the workshop itself to see how they wanted to structure the work that would go about answering the brief.

The session was well-run, inspiring, thoughtful. We spent the morning hearing amazing insights and then broke into 8 groups of 6 after lunch, something like that. Groups were for the most part, I think, one person from the start-up helping to kind of lead/mentor and then the rest was giant org folks. We started the session simply going around the table, like, ok, who has an idea? I wished immediately I had sharpened up some of my thoughts from the previous nights / that morning. I threw out an idea that was more like 2/3 of an idea. Other folks threw out ideas. Nothing fully formed, nothing terribly strong, though with a good group okay ideas can deepen into great things! I struggled on the balance of when-to-lead vs. when-not-to (if I had it to do again I would have led the structure/process more than the work, that's where we needed more help). We built out my idea first. It had some good bones to it but felt messy, needed sharpening, and we were running out of time. We got some quick and helpful feedback from a more senior start-up person that revealed that some of the fast placeholder decisions made were too fast and too sloppy. We tweaked. Then we built out a second idea from another colleague. It was sharper and simpler, but it didn't have the necessary depth to it. There was, honestly, not much of a way to commercialize it, even. Everything felt very very fast. That was the point - 2 big ideas. Rapid ideation, rapid prototyping, then bringing in consumers to test each, then presenting our best back to the group, all in the space of about 3 hours. Some things went wrong. Our consumer testing group was very late to meet us, at one point it was just one person instead of a real consumer group.

Mostly, I felt that we as a group never had a strong enough leader (including me!), never struck the balance of sharp + deep, spent our time on the wrong things, etc. We rushed to prep for the presentation and showed up unprepared, not even addressing the last few things in the brief. Another person in our group built out the presentation.I took a deep breath and presented on behalf of the group with one other person, wishing the whole time that I had let someone else get on the mic to rep us. Again I wished I had a prepared a little bit more, even in the moments before presenting. The other groups presented. A few were jaw-droppingly good. All were at least good. Ours stood out as incomplete, not viable to scale, and one-dimensional. It.was.BAD. It was. We knew it before we even got on stage. Then everyone voted. The winning project earned 20 votes. I think 3rd place was around 15. I think all the groups had at least around 8 or 10, minimum. Ours got 2. This means that most of us (me included!) didn't even vote for ourselves. I wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground.

Group work is group work - it can be tricky. Still, though, other groups managed! I think a very strong leader would have been able to shine in that situation, even with a more junior group. I didn't. I know for a fact I can make a sharp, strong, complete new concept like this (I have! Many times!) but I've never done it on such a short timeline in a group setting. I think I could have been an awesome contributor or perhaps even led in a strong way if I had been in a different group or had a chance to do it again. I do think ours was a bit more junior than some others - managers in our group, at least one VP at another table; our start-up lead was also pretty junior (and only working there one day a week), and someone structuring the process better would have helped a lot. I learned things. I would have prepared better. I would have pushed for greater sharpness in the session, I would have pushed for tighter structuring. I might be better at this scenario in a few more years. But mostly. Oh man. I just feel like I blew it.

I remain incredibly impressed by the org, would love to work there, and also feel very embarrassed about my own performance. I know they value things like self-awareness, and learning, and empathy.

I would like to write a note to my contact who invited me. To thank her, to be humble and honest and express what I learned, to still express interest in the org. Right? I think so. What do I say?
posted by red_rabbit to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oh yes! AND. I actually know the president of this "start up" org. I hadn't seen her in years but worked with her on a small project outside of work for awhile long ago. I was waiting to prep myself a bit more before reaching out to her to say hello, given that she's like 3 giant ladder rungs above me in corporate-land. But guess what? She was at the pitch-backs. She warmly greeted me afterwards as if I hadn't just presented an unviable one-dimensional business idea. She hugged me and mentioned that we should have coffee soon. Not sure how to handle THAT one. Meet up with her yes! Not sure how to address what she witnessed.
posted by red_rabbit at 1:18 PM on September 16, 2019

I think the best way to handle this is to play it off. The more you fixate on it, the more junior it makes you seem. I’d just throw out a few comments to your contacts acknowledging it was a dud (without blaming anyone) to show self-awareness and then move on with the networking. Since it was meant to be a fun/optional event, any kind of major damage control would seem disproportionate. I know your performance is a HUGE deal to you but it probably did not register so high on anyone else’s radar.

Basically, flag it and move on.
posted by whitewall at 1:49 PM on September 16, 2019 [12 favorites]

I don't know exactly what you should say, but I think you should err less on the self-flagellation side, and more about what you found interesting about the opportunity, that you learned some things which will be helpful to you in the future, and you hope that they all found it valuable.

From your description, I suspect that the situation is less bad than you think it is - by which I think I mean less memorable. I think that talking too much about how bad your team was and how you can do much better honestly will probably cement that view in their mind more than you want. And that you probably don't yet have an objective view about how much is too much.

Take some time to reflect for yourself about what you learned, and what you would need to do to be a good candidate at this place at the level that you want, and whether you are interested in doing that work or not.

For sure, have coffee with the president. She certainly sees you as a friendly acquaintance and it's a good opportunity to find out even more about the place and what it's like to be involved in. Relax and treat it like any other friendly coffee with someone diagonally above you at work.
posted by plonkee at 1:53 PM on September 16, 2019

You are currently being your own worst enemy. Meet up with the boss. Talk about what excites you.

DO NOT tear your presentation apart in front of her. Do have three bullets for what went well and what could have gone better, IF she asks.
posted by rockindata at 1:54 PM on September 16, 2019 [15 favorites]

This is so not my field of expertise, but isn't "can see when other ideas are better and let go of own ideas to help pursue them" also an important part of things? It sounds like the only-two-votes thing was a sign that almost everyone in your group had a solid grasp on your presentation's place in the scale, which for a workshop like this I think would be important. Not everyone can hit it out of the park every time, but someone who thinks that everything they do is The Best is super risky to have around.
posted by current resident at 2:07 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

It flopped. If you want to talk about the event during your coffee, maybe talk about some of the ideas you loved (and possibly ways to build upon those; or how they might integrate into the company).

Don't worry about the fact that your team had some duds during a session that's meant to be highly experimental, and a way to move quick.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 2:12 PM on September 16, 2019

Handling failure is an important part of startup culture.
posted by amtho at 3:24 PM on September 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

You can absolutely embrace this failure. You don't need to toot about it so when you have that coffee with the boss three rungs higher on the ladder, thank her for being at the event. Let her know you learned a lot. Have some positive things to say about how it was run, how well your team worked together, and how exciting it was to see the variety of ideas that other teams brought to the table. If she asks about your group's work, mention that you wish you had been able to ....something tangible. Express how glad you were that the team was willing and able to change tracks. Note that the leadership from the startup employee was helpful (to the extent that it was) and also mention that you have identified things to work on in your own leadership work.

You do not need to feel badly about not using the time in the evenings before this event. Folks with caretaking responsibilities, second jobs, etc are often not spending that kind of time outside paid work. It's good to not normalize living and breathing work work work.
posted by bilabial at 4:22 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is totally not my sphere, but it seems like rapidly developing and presenting ideas at a workshop in a matter of hours is kind of a performative stunt. Most projects which are really big/important are going to take months, if not years to refine. Some people/teams are good at improv comedy, some people/teams are good at writing a humorous three act play over the course of four months. You say that your recent projects have had excellent results- that's empirical proof that you and your team know what they are doing in the real world. If it comes up, you could acknowledge that your team was thrown off by the different environment but that they perform well under more realistic timelines.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 5:14 PM on September 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

The purpose of these events isn't to develop a good product. It's to give the startup staff an idea of how you are to work with. Your post is really down on your team and very "me me me". You happily throw then under the bus while minimizing your own contribution to a product no one was happy with. And now you are ruminating on it and worrying about the repercussions to yourself, not looking at the big picture. Don't be like that if you want to get hired to do team work. Be positive, realistic and optimistic about doing better in the future. Talk about the big picture, like how the overall workshop developed great ideas and you learned a lot and felt it moved the process forward. Talk positively about your teammates. It's clear you guys were less experienced but you knew it! It made you realise how much of a well oiled machine your current team is and how that doesn't just happen without work and a good mix of skills. Try to sound like someone who is interested in the work this place does, not just the benefit to you of getting a job there. Then take feedback seriously and try to get the skills and experience they want.
posted by fshgrl at 5:38 PM on September 16, 2019 [15 favorites]

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