When mistakes create a mess, the lessons of a Montana burn pile can help you fail forward.

3 small business insights, gleaned from a western wind storm and ranch burn pile.

© 2021 Devin D. Marks

A burn pile builds over a season on a ranch’s backside.

But on occasion, there’s a crisis — a snowstorm, lightning strike, you name it.

Trees fall. Then a big burn is necessary.

That happened last week after 75 MPH winds struck.

It was a long-building mistake: More than a century ago, Montana settlers favored fast-growing cottonwood trees. They wanted shade, fast. They got it with the short-lived, disease-prone poplars.

After the storm, a backhoe and dump truck cleared the bulk of it. But branches and twigs were in all directions. It meant days of raking.

Then, there it sat. A pile. Ugly. Misshapen. A reminder.

Then it was lit.

The property manager worked the pyre for days. He raked, re-circled, and shifted it with the tractor bucket. In time, it was reduced to a small ash mound.

We gathered daily. Turns out ranch burn piles share a bit in common with campfires — just on a different scale. They produce conversation and stories.

It got me thinking: that burn pile can serve as a metaphor for the debris of failure in business.

Next time I make a mess…

  • I don’t want to ignore it.
  • I don’t want to leave it untended.
  • I don’t want to address it alone.

Clean-up, in life and work, often requires a burn pile. Yet as the discards smolder, it is important to listen and learn.

TAKE ACTION: 3 small business lessons, gleaned from a western wind storm and ranch burn pile.

A burn pile can rage and then smolder for days. Each one takes a lot of work to reduce the house-sized stack to a campfire-sized pile of ash. Each one sparks instructive conversation and stories. It reminds me that clean-ups in life and business take time and should spark “next time” conversations.

(1) DON’T DILLY-DALLY. When a mistake or failure strikes. Don’t procrastinate, prevaricate, or pretend. Take quick action to clean up. In a Montana burn pile, those fallen branches can represent botched experiments, stalled product lines, errant territory launches, and what have you. While disappointing, they are all learning (and clean-up) opportunities that are best quickly addressed. In both Montana and Boston, I’ve learned not to dilly-dally in clean-ups.

(2) TEND TO THE LONG-TERM PROCESS. A mistake or failure requires a clean-up that isn’t quick and easy. It’s not a task; it’s a process. In a Montana burn pile, the initial roar and crackle of the fire flares off the first day. Then it is a 4–5 day process of constant raking, re-circling, and shifting the debris with the tractor bucket. Eventually, it is reduced to a small ash mound. But then there’s still work to be done: rake the spot flat, spread some seed, and return to enjoying the landscape. In both Montana and Boston, I’ve learned to invest time in a long-term clean-up process.

(3) INVOLVE OTHERS IN THE CONVERSATION. A mistake or failure post-mortem isn’t something to undertake alone. In a Montana burn pile, many hands and eyes make the multi-day process safe. The same goes for passing the time — the more voices weighing into the conversation around the fire, the better. The more you learn. The richer the stories. The more likely some learnin’ worth taking with you. The process offers a post-mortem opportunity for instruction and failing forward. In both Montana and Boston, I’ve learned to involve the perspectives of others in failing forward.

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Devin D. Marks

Devin D. Marks

The TED TALK Whisperer. Clients enjoy 1M+View TED Talks. Also grateful host of Thinker Thursdays™ ( Join: https://bit.ly/3kLt5wr)