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It’s time to embrace the F-word!

Brett Davidson tackles the word none of us likes to hear – Failure – and shows how it is important in building success in your business

When I first speak with prospective clients on the phone, one of the exploratory questions I ask is, “Have past change initiatives failed?” You can hear the tension on the other end of the line. Even the possibility of having to say the word ‘failed’ out loud really causes some people grief. I’m not pointing the finger here because I can be very much the same way.

The real question to ask is why? Why are we so uncomfortable with failure?

I can rattle off famous examples of failures who made good and pretend I’m cool with it. For example, Thomas Edison is famous for saying he never failed when inventing the lightbulb, he simply found 10,000 ways it didn’t work. There you go. It sounds like I get it.

However, when it comes to actually accepting failure it’s a different matter altogether. Is it the same for you too?

The truth is that we are all failing our way through life to some extent. If we replaced the word failure with one of the new buzzword phrases, “intelligent learning”, perhaps we’d be better with the whole concept. However, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s failure. We try something and it doesn’t work. I reckon it’s important not to sugar-coat it because incorrect use of language is one way we can gloss over or cover up what’s really going on.

Mike Maddock, inventor, writer and a keynote speaker, in an article for Forbes called If You Have To Fail – And You Do – Fail Forward, highlights some great issues in regards to failure and learning.

Firstly, innovation is iterative; it comes from repetition and is the result of trial and error. Most businesses today use a process of soft launch and iterative development employing ‘at the coalface’ learning. That is, they launch, get feedback and go again.

Mike says: “For successful launches to happen, a team must be OK with the premise that they are starting with what some may consider a half-baked idea — one that very well may fail as constituted.”

The other key concept in failing it forward is limiting the downside, and changing as rapidly as possible. If we accept that we live in a world that is changing very quickly, taking huge bets on an idea becomes high risk and return (probably too high risk). There are smarter ways to launch, test, and change an idea.

Mike suggests understanding and communicating the following five points to your team to help them get on board:

1. We’re only right when the market tells us so

Right now, we presume to be right, and our thinking is based on as-good-as-we-can-afford research, history and gut feel. The market will help us see and hear what we can do to be more right. It will also help us eliminate all the things our customers – and potential customers – don’t like or don’t want.

My comment: This is a key point to get straight in your head. I meet too many financial planner business owners who stay married to an idea that clearly isn’t working as they’d hoped. It’s easy for us all to get stuck on an idea, rather than letting it iterate to a new improved version. There may well be merit in some of what you are doing, but if the market doesn’t validate that with interest and success you need to be accepting, adjusting, and moving on to the next version.

2. We can make any changes quickly

We can simulate years of research data in the span of months once we are out in the marketplace. It is the fastest way to learn.

My comment: We can do this, but only if we are open to the feedback and learning we generate. That means using the F word (failure) out loud, so that we can quickly accept what we are seeing and move on.

3. It has never been cheaper to test ideas

The Internet allows for instant feedback; technology has made prototyping doable in days instead of weeks. Kickstarters actually let people vote with their pocketbooks.

My comment: What is your process for testing new ideas? When do you sit down and evaluate the feedback you’re getting? Can you use some form of crowdsourcing to gather information rapidly?

4. It is going to be fun

We’re doing this to learn and improve, not to beat up an idea. So there is no reason for anyone to get defensive.

My comment: This is about accepting that the journey, not the destination, is a key component of your business adventure. It can really help keep the defensiveness out of the internal discussions.

5. We will be making our ‘mistake’ on a small scale

If we find out our idea is completely off base, we’re about to save [sic. ourselves a fortune in wasted time and money] because we’re being calculated and pragmatic.

My comment: Keeping the testing at an affordable level from a time-and-money perspective is just good business, and allows you to test a lot more ideas rather than taking one big bet.

Tim Ogilvie, CEO of innovation strategy consultancy Peer Insight says: “Start small, and start in 2-D. Big ideas are fine, but it’s wise to learn in small increments in order to keep the losses affordable. Austin Henderson, former head of the Pitney Bowes Concept Studio, likes to say, “What is the very smallest thing you can do? Figure that out and do it.” Often the smallest way to express a new concept is through a 2-D sketch or scenario cartoon. They take minutes to develop, and help your target customer imagine the experience you intend to create.”

If you really want your business to grow then getting comfortable with the word failure is definitely a prerequisite. However, it’s the learning from our failures that is the driver of the growth and success that most of us would like.

It’s time to embrace the F-word!

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