Are you organized for failure?
“The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” -Paulo Coelho
Clay Shirky’s landmark book, Here Comes Everybody – The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations is essential reading for everyone seeking to understand how our world has been redefined by the internet. I threw sticky notes in a few pages years ago and wanted to highlight a quote that I’ve come back to multiple times. This is from page 246, where the open source movement is being discussed:
In traditional organizations, trying anything is expensive, even if just in staff time to discuss the idea, so someone must make some attempt to filter the successes from the failures in advance. In open systems, the cost of trying something is so low that handicapping the likelihood of success is often an unnecessary distraction. Even in a firm committed to experimentation, considerable work goes into reducing the likelihood of failure. This doesn’t mean that open source communities don’t discuss — on the contrary, they have more discussions than in managed production because no one is in a position to compel work on a particular project. Open systems, by reducing the cost of failure, enable their participants to fail like crazy, building on successes as they go.
This concept is a game-changer for how you should operate, whether for your business or personally and the opposite of how most people are trained in academia, or by legacy companies.
Using digital communications tools allows you to try everything out and see what sticks. It allows you to embrace failure at minimal or zero cost. Technology enables you to open source parts of your business.
The most successful people and organizations fail far more than they succeed. You just only hear about the successes. No one creates a blockbuster every time. But if you are organized for failure, ready to embrace it and learn from it while building a knowledge base, it can be a winning strategy.
There is no longer a cost barrier to sharing your organization’s thoughts, potential new products and potential new services directly with your consumers and seeing what resonates.
There is no longer a cost to spread messages, images, videos, coupons, run special offers/LTOs, etc.
There is no longer a cost to create highly relevant focus groups at your whim if you’re organized for it.
These are just a few areas where being setup for failure enables the freedom to easily experiment.
If you’re organized for failure, you don’t have to give the market what you think it might want. You can give the market what it didn’t even realize it wanted until you stumbled upon it by putting the idea out there. And, you are far more open to stumbling upon potential hit ideas if you are able to fail like crazy.
Learn to embrace failure, make it a non-event using digital tools and you will open up a world of possibility previously inconceivable because of cost, management or logistical barriers.
Failure is always an option
“Failure is always an option,” a phrase popularized by Adam Savage from MythBusters, is a powerful ideology all of us should embrace. It runs counter to the old saying by buttoned-down military commanders, managers, football coaches and other commonly associated power figures that failure is not an option.
That phrase was (and still is) used by managers of all levels and types in a misguided attempt at motivation. However it’s unlikely to motivate smart folk and wouldn’t be used if they understood the true motivations behind creative individuals. The old notion of failure not being an option is irrelevant to digital professionals.
Failure is a beautiful thing, and if you organize your business around it you can gain a serious advantage over competitors who think they’re infallible and spend inordinate amounts of time trying to be perfect versus trying lots of things, failing like crazy, and seeing what sticks. The truth is we all fail, every one of us, and when you really stop and remove the societal stigmas associated with it, you realize it’s not actually a negative.
If you’re organized properly to take advantage of the web there is no such thing as failure. Actually, the only real cost of failure in modern business is wasting time worrying about it. This is because you should be getting data from everything you’re doing, and like a meteorologist using that feedback to constantly improve your methods. Data is now everyone’s domain and if you don’t understand how to use it yet, it’s time to learn.
If you’re still not sold on failure being a good thing, watch this talk by Adam from MythBusters, really puts the concept in perspective:
Try things and iterate
Building on the above, my friend Noah Brier previously published a fantastic presentation entitled everything is media. I’ve stressed the idea of iterating for awhile, and slide 59 really nails the rationale behind this:
Try things and iterate. Face it, you’re not as good at predicting success as you think you are. It is well-established that things become popular mostly randomly. Sure you can spend against but even that isn’t a guarantee.
Noah is spot on and hits upon something most people in the business world (especially corporate) America still don’t get. All efforts need to be iterative. To put this into an action: you should be following a plan and publishing a stream of new content that has expectation of success with frequency throughout the timeframe of a program. Improve as you go based on data, and refine bit by bit. The old days of optimizing a limited set of pages on a website, linkbuilding and hoping for rankings area dead. So is the idea of publishing one video and trying to push it throughout channels in the hopes of it catching on (if that was ever a good idea).
Most communications pros overvalue each single piece of content because they are following a set of rules applicable to a society where the amount of content created and power to publish it was limited. This world no longer exists. It used to be expensive and time consuming to create and distribute content. If it still is for you, you’re in a lot of trouble – make it cheap and simple to create and distribute with very low cost of failure or forever be dominated by the agile.
In reality, you should never expect a single piece of content you make to be successful. Ever. First, it does not properly manage expectation, second, none of us can accurately predict success and third – perhaps most importantly – it doesn’t even matter if it is. Not really. One success is not what you should be after. If you are staking your digital marketing results on a limited number of pieces of content that are relatively static you’re doing it wrong.
You need to structure your efforts in a way that you are constantly trying new things and iterating through the content formats that fit the behaviors, preferences and formats of your audience (and perhaps testing new ones that you think might work). Would you rather go fishing with one rod or an ever-increasing number of them?
In a world where every company is a media company, it’s no longer about any single one piece of content. Create, publish, promote, measure, repeat. Don’t dwell.
One other point from Noah in the presentation linked above that stood out is another huge mistake most businesses make with their marketing. They neglect to build an audience and reinvent the wheel with every single thing they publish or promote:
Build on prior success. Too many brands rebuild their audience for every campaign, spending the same money to reach the same people over and over again. Even if you’re not sure what to do with it yet, you’ve got to recognize the value of building an audience.
Spot on – you are in absolutely no position to create increasing returns or build momentum without this. That’s really the whole idea of focusing on opt in at the source.
Getting organized for failure is probably the single best concept to give you a sustained edge. Given almost no large company does it, it’s truly your David vs Goliath opportunity if you’re the little guy.
Run experiments - not just A/B tests, but all different kinds
If you embrace failure, naturally it means you’re actively experimenting (and if not, you should be). I experiment with many different ideas digitally both personally and professionally. If you accept everything written above, you’re probably already doing it too. It’s a lot of fun, and at the same time a fantastic way to learn. There is no limit to using open networks other than your creativity. And, quite possibly the best way to learn and find what works for you personally is by experimenting.
The top companies and professionals in all fields are constantly experimenting, motivated by an unstoppable passion for what they do. There are so many great reasons you should be experimenting daily with your writing, videos, art, marketing and your business. I’m going to run through just a few…
Experiments attract attention
Human beings are infinitely inquisitive. Marketing and content creation experiments are bound to attract attention if they are interesting or offbeat. In fact, there are so many people outright copying each other and following the same methods that truly creative experiments will always get more attention than more of the same.
And this is a beautiful thing. The web makes the cost of failure so low it’s worth failing like crazy to learn what works as we went through above.
Experiments on the web are cheap
I touched on cost under the last point, but I want to highlight this further. Think of how many millions major companies spend on things like TV advertising. Even a percentage of that moved to experimenting on the web could yield huge ROI. The web is measurable in ways far deeper than TV anyway and forges more intimate connections. I’m not saying experiment as in merely shift TV advertising dollars to web advertising – do something genuinely interesting.
Experiments often work
I’m always pleasantly surprised by how often my experiments succeed. Too often people will throw flags why someone ‘might not’ work, but really no one knows for certain until the hypothesis is tested.
Experiments are interesting because they’re unrestricted
Are you in a traditional organization with lots of artificial barriers, yet looking to fully embrace the Internet for your marketing? Get those up top to let their guard down and give you permission to experiment as you see fit. You’ll quickly find the experiments will be even more successful than the overly-refined, corporate messages because they’re much more interesting and actually break through the clutter. If you can’t remove the barriers, you’re not really experimenting. Those who consistently restrict and move slowly will always place behind nimble competitors who have trusted, empowered people out front.
Experiments are fun
If your experiment isn’t fun, it’s not an experiment. They’re so much fun because you don’t know the outcome – while you can hypothesize results based on your experience, intuition and prior art, you can never know for sure until you’re conducting it in the wild.
Experiments are just the types of things your “sneezers” will love
Seth Godin advises us to ignore our critics and fans, but focus on our sneezers:
Your fans don’t want you to change, your fans want you to maintain the essence of what you bring them but add a laundry list of features. You fans want lower prices and more contributions, bigger portions and more frequent deliveries.
So, who should you listen to?
You should listen to the people who tell the most people about you. Listen to the people who thrive on sharing your good works with others. If you delight these people, you grow.
In other words: your fans want more of the same – but your sneezers are delighted by having new ideas and new things to tell the world about you. Clever experiments deliver just that.
Experimenting is the sign of a strong purpose
One of my industry friends Max Kalehoff brilliant states:
…far too many business leaders have lost sense of what their purpose is. They’re ships without a compass that points anywhere beyond profit. Their crewmembers typically can’t articulate what they’re doing, nor why others should join. It’s especially evident amidst the largest companies, many of which have become giant, self-absorbed and calculating machines. Think about the U.S. auto, finance and airline industries. Consider the advertising industry!
The good news is that purpose increasingly represents fundamental opportunity and advantage. Having purpose means knowing one’s self, as well as solving real customer problems. Maximizing purpose makes it easier for relevant customers to affiliate with you and develop preference. Purpose is what makes success possible.
Know your purpose, and experiment with that in mind. When purpose is clearly defined and is something all team members embrace, it enables nimble companies, bloggers, marketers, analysts and creatives to conduct lots of little experiments with purpose and run circles around competition who spend all their resources second guessing themselves. I’m not saying don’t have a strategy, just realize if you spend too long on that, those focused on action and purpose will pass you by again and again.
Google, a company with a strong purpose, understands the value in experimenting:
As an interesting motivation technique (usually called Innovation Time Off), all Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time (one day per week) on projects that interest them. Some of Google’s newer services, such as Gmail, Google News, Orkut, and AdSense originated from these independent endeavors. In a talk at Stanford University, Marissa Mayer, Google’s former Vice President of Search Products and User Experience, stated that her analysis showed that half of the new product launches originated from the 20% time.
Experimenting provides both subjective and objective insights
We learn by doing, and the more we experiment, the more unique and useful insights we have to assimilate and build upon. What we learn during experimenting can be taken back and applied to improve our formal processes. A key to building a huge following on the web is to continue to innovate and improve, and the more experiences you have, the better future decisions you’ll make.
My friend Eric Friedman calls his experiments “Sandbox Projects,” and notes:
… it is always good to learn something by actually doing it – and web applications are no different. You can only learn so much in hypothetical situations or from reading about them in a textbook or case study situation.
Adding to this, Tim Jahn puts the benefits of experimenting into context nicely:
So many people are waiting for the million dollar idea. That overnight success that will launch them into financial freedom and a mansion in the hills.
Others are trying five dollar ideas, failing, and then trying a different five dollar idea. It may take them days, months, even years, but they’ll end up with something.
Quick wrap & some questions to ponder…
Are you experimenting with a good deal of frequency or just doing more of the same? What do you think of companies that empower their teams to freely experiment vs. those where deviation is not an option?
Are you personally under thumb of those operating with the mindset everything must be perfect, that doesn’t iterate/experiment, and a culture that punishes failures instead of embracing (perhaps even rewarding) them? If so, it’s worth probing why that is and seeing if you can’t be a change agent in your organization.
And if you haven’t seen this classic scene with Picard & Data talking about failure, make sure you watch before leaving.