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Learning How to Fail

Learning How to Fail

I read two thought-provoking pieces this weekend about how companies can succeed in the digital economy, but how they often fail to do so. The first, from the Wharton School of Business talked about transforming corporate cultures by celebrating failures. The key quote for me:

“The minute you send the message, “it is okay to fail,” you are overcoming the natural inclination to be risk-averse… Then you have to link it [to the] incentive and reward system, so you want to celebrate lessons from failure.

You will not be celebrating only successes, but what have we learned from something that did not work?”

Happily, the article didn’t just talk theory; it also talked practice. For instance, as Wharton professor Jerry (Yoram) Wind notes:

“How do you rewire the people? How do you equip them with new skill sets which are required in the new [digital age]? How do you actually walk the talk, because [risks arise;] when a company that is an analog business also aspires to get into the digital business, cannibalization is inevitable.

As a CEO, do you do something different while saying something different — in which case the authenticity of leadership becomes important? In my company, the mantra we have adopted is, “make customers central to our transformation.” Revolve around your customer strategy to be successful.”

Unfortunately, this seems to be easier said than done. First of all, nobody likes failing. And second, companies seem to resist its benefits. A Harvard Business Review article states bluntly, “Companies Value Curiosity but Stifle It Anyway​” and offers the following data to back that up:

“Surveying workers in 16 industries, we found that while 65% said that curiosity was essential to discover new ideas, virtually the same percentage felt unable to ask questions on the job. The contradictions continued: while 84% reported that their employers encouraged curiosity, 60% said they had also encountered barriers to it at work.”

That’s crazy. It’s also counter-productive.

I visited a Fortune 100 company this past week that invests heavily in R&D. By learning what doesn’t work—quickly—the company can quickly reallocate money to those areas that do perform well. And it makes economic sense, saving the company billions of dollars each year as they learn what’s working and what isn’t. Companies with lots of money on the line rely on heavy doses of testing to ensure they’re not wasting time and money. They’re learning how to fail every day, then applying those lessons to drive greater success. Why aren’t you?

Marketing today depends on testing everything, learning from what your customers have to say, and then, as I like to say, “fishing where the fishing’s good.” It depends on celebrating failures and learning from those failures to improve your efforts every day. As my very good friend Mike Moran says, “Do It Wrong Quickly.” You’ll improve your creativity as well as that of your team. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. And in today’s marketplace, you really can’t succeed unless you know both.

If you want learn even more about how your customers’ changing behavior shapes e-commerce and marketing, be sure and register to receive a special report I’ve produced in conjunction with hotel marketing firm Vizergy, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World.” While it’s targeted specifically at hotel and resort marketers, the lessons apply to just about any business. You can get your free copy of the report here.

You might also want to check out these slides I had the pleasure of presenting recently about how to lead mobile-focused digital transformation within large organizations (a topic we’ve been talking about a fair bit lately). Here are the slides for your reference:

And, finally, you might want to take a look at some of our past coverage of the e-commerce, mobile commerce, and digital marketing overall, including:

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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