"Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan."
That's the way most of us wish things worked, but that's not been my experience in larger organizations. In fact, there seems to be a relentless effort to pin blame for anything perceived as a failure on some hapless employee/victim. Occasionally it's justified, but most often, not.
Forget about those unreasonable expectations. Never mind that the strategy was fundamentally flawed. Don't ever consider the unexpected and unpredictable circumstances that arose. These seem to be the mantra in the blame game.
Every problem, every failure, has to have a name attached to it. And if you want to survive and thrive in the political world, you better make sure that name isn't yours.
And as with many of the political admonitions I've presented here, that point is probably obvious to experienced political animals. The question really becomes -- how?
Let me offer three pieces of advice:
1. Don't sign up for a project with a high risk of failure. Of course, sometimes it's hard to do this -- your position may make it impossible to avoid the bad strategy advanced by your boss, for example. But in many cases you have more control over signing up than you think. Don't be backed into a corner. If the project is particularly high risk, go public with your desire to avoid it. If by some miracle the effort later succeeds, few will recall you were an early doubter.
2. Narrow the scope of your part of the project, and make sure you can claim success for that part -- even if the rest does ultimately fail. "The product launch plan was brilliant, even though the market assessment was fundamentally flawed." -- that's the assessment you're after. You can actually get a small amount of recognition for nicely arranging the deck chairs on your own personal Titanic, if you do it particularly well. If you own the entire project, however, this option isn't going to be open to you.
3. Get on record early as having grave concerns about the project's success. Doing so can at least make you look smart when the whole thing is going down the tubes. "I think that hole in the side of the ship might be a problem...". This, like many techniques, must be done with craft. Overplay your hand, and people may try to pin the "self-fulfilling prophesy" label on you, and shift even more of the blame your direction. It can also backfire, and cause you to pick up more scope when you want to narrow your exposure. Be careful who you register your concerns with, and to what degree.
Scapegoating can also be used in this situation -- a tactic I will be turning to shortly. But scapegoating has a greater scope than just distancing oneself from a failure, so I will defer further discussion of that tactic until it pops up on the list.
Keeping those failures off your record is critical to playing successfully in the higher levels of most corporations, and also to avoid other power players taking advantage of you. Do it well, and you've nearly mastered all the power player's tactical handbook.