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How to Sell Failure to Skeptical Executives


Emerson Taymor

October 11, 2017

What would we do if we weren’t willing to fail?Nothing. Quite literally, there would be almost nothing to do.

We certainly wouldn’t drive or fly: Why risk an accident? We’d never apply to a job, start a business, ask someone on a date, or take a trip abroad. We couldn’t cook because we might burn the house down, but we also couldn’t leave the house to get food. And riding a crocodile at Agile Alliance is out of the question (see photo above).

Business, in the same way, requires companies to risk failure. Sure, Photosynth, Microsoft’s defunct panoramic photo editing and storage tool, may have failed in the traditional sense. But just think about all the mileage that Microsoft got out of it through spinoffs, awards, public relations (including a super-viewed TED Talk and the historic 2008 presidential inauguration), and research and development.

In other words, failure is a part of innovation. It’s uncomfortable, of course, but it’s also a huge opportunity to save money, waste less time, and create superstar solutions.

Why Fear Failure?

In school, failure is built into a boogeyman. That test we failed? We’re told it’s the end of the course, our scholarship, or even our job prospects.

But when we avoid failure in business, we also lose out on all the great outcomes of a royal egg-in-the-face mistake. The faster we fail, the more money we can save. The more money we save, the more experiments we can run. The more experiments we run, the greater our chances of finding that next breakthrough.

The benefits of failure aren’t limited to product development, though. When we build cultures where failure is accepted — encouraged, even — we unburden team members to do their best work. In its quest to build stronger teams, Google discovered that the key wasn’t personality mix, hierarchy, or even skills: It was a culture where team members felt accepted enough by their peers to fail.

Our teachers got it wrong. Failure isn’t something to fear: It’s actually a priceless asset.

Getting the C-Suite Comfortable With Failure

Realistically, executives in your organization aren’t going to like a “Let’s fail more” business strategy. The key to getting executives to embrace failure is to take advantage of the failures that do happen. So the next time a project of yours fails:

1. Show the cost savings of failure.

In traditional product development, costs are concentrated upfront. By spending 20 to 40 percent of project resources in the ideation and design stages, waterfall practitioners try to save development and debugging time.

The problem with this is that it ignores how product innovation actually works. Because somewhere near 80 percent of new products fail, your goal shouldn’t be to cut development time: It should be to fail faster.

To be clear, failing faster doesn’t mean killing viable products; it means getting to an inevitable dead end earlier and with fewer resources. You can then spend your remaining resources applying those lessons learned to a more worthwhile project.

But be warned: Most corporate budgets don’t reward those who spend less. If you don’t spend everything, you’ll just receive fewer funds the next year. Be sure to include a slide or sheet at the end of your presentation outlining the other experiments you want to run with your leftover money.

When sharing the savings of your failed experiments, remember that resources include more than just money. Add up the number of employee hours saved, mention that online course your developers unexpectedly had time to take, and point out the extra projects your team completed.

2. Outline learnings applicable to other projects.

Will all your failed projects save the company money? Regrettably, no. Some will be cost sinks, plain and simple.

But that doesn’t mean they were good for nothing. You just have to see the coals left among the ashes. Look for value from all angles: What business planning insights might you have gained? What communication, design, development, or strategy choices were made that shouldn’t have been?

Don’t forget all you learned about your users, too. Maybe you misunderstood the problem context; if nothing else, you likely learned why your solution wouldn’t work. It wasn’t until my company’s work with ZeeMee that we understood why college admissions essays aren’t enough for students to share their stories.

To house your insights, start a repository similar to WeWork’s Polaris system, built by user experience leader Tomer Sharon, to store all the feature ideas that come from failed products. Stock yours with design and development tips, user data, and product plans from failed projects. Give your employees access to it so they can add to the list themselves and draw from it during their work.

3. Promote failure as a way to improve employee engagement.

Hiding or downplaying failed projects communicates to your team that failure is shameful. Instead, put failures in the spotlight.

Over time, your team will feel less stressed and work more sure-footedly. Employees will realize that when they fail, they’re doing their jobs. According to research published by Harvard Business Review, failure-friendly work environments increase engagement by 76 percent and employee satisfaction by 29 percent.

New to the idea of making failure fun? In a good-natured way, call out failures during weekly departmental meetings. Rather than point fingers, discuss the experience as a team. Even if those key performance indicators didn’t indicate what you were hoping for, talk about improvements that came (or could still come) from the failure.

Remember in science class when you learned that cold isn’t really cold, but an absence of heat? The same is true of failure. It doesn’t really exist; it’s just the lack of a right answer.

But the way to arrive at that answer isn’t to stop asking questions: It’s to ask more of them. Keep running experiments, keep learning from them, and above all, keep failing.

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