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Failure is the key to success

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One of the most important senses most humans posses is pain. Pain allows us to learn very quickly from our mistakes.  Picking up a sharp object, falling over, bumping into things, dropping something on your foot; the pain involved quickly allows children to learn not to do these things. 

Without the pain, children would not learn through their failures. Without this failure, they would not learn how to succeed.

Moving into adulthood and professional life, failure is very often viewed as a negative thing. If a business launches a new product, tries a new marketing initiative, tries a new user experience on their website, the initiative will almost always have KPIs that are focused on elements such as a growth in sales, a growth in profit or an increase in orders. 

This is perfectly understandable and natural for most businesses. Stakeholders need to measure the success and ROI of any initiative.

If at first you don’t succeed

While success should certainly be celebrated, what can make a company stand out is not just how it how it deals with success but how it deals with failure. As people and businesses, we are all going to fail sometimes. No person or company is successful at everything, and failure can teach us a great deal.

Innovation most often involves taking a risk; sometimes big, sometimes small. Any risk has a chance of failure, so it stands to reason that a fear of failure inhibits risk taking which can inhibit innovation.

I have run Envoy for over 20 years and, in that time, we have had both successes and failures (luckily more of former and less of the latter). We have run hundreds of projects and each one has had its own challenges, successes and failures.  The important thing is to understand the failures and learn from them. 

I have certainly found that the hardest and most important lessons have always come from our failures and have helped us to ultimately become successful.

If you look at the history of successful entrepreneurs, you will often see that they had multiple failures before they then became successful. Does anyone remember the Apple Newton? That was a spectacular failure, but I would question whether we would have iPhones and iPads now had Apple not launched the Newton and learned why it failed.How about the Apple Lisa?  This was a massive failure for the company and ultimately cost Steve Jobs his job. Would we now have the Apple Mac, had they not learnt from the failure of the Lisa?

James Dyson developed thousands of prototypes of his vacuum cleaner, learning from each one, before he came up with a version that worked and propelled him to be one the most successful entrepreneurs in the world.

Learning from failure is important in all aspects of life and business. A/B or multivariate testing is fairly standard for most online retailers where different layouts, messages, calls to action and functions are tested against one another to see which achieves the best result. 

While it is natural to focus on those tests that achieved the best result, those that achieved the worst are equally, or sometimes more, important. Maybe a test that changes the colour of checkout button to blue increased conversion rate by 0.1% but changing it to red decreased it by 0.5%. You could argue that the test that failed is actually the most valuable as it highlights the importance of the colour of that button. Get it wrong and you can dramatically reduce your conversion rate.

Amazon is famous for focusing on evidence-based user experience. Any changes to the user experience of their platform is thoroughly tested and only made available to everyone once the evidence shows the correct results. They never deploy changes just based on an opinion of one or a few people. 

It is important to take this approach when implementing any design or change to user experience. I have seen so many examples in the past where a change to UX is based on the opinion of one UX designer or the just internal e-commerce team. This can often be a mistake. It is important to thoroughly test changes to UX either through A/B testing or, for larger changes, user prototype testing. 

User prototype testing is where a clickable prototype is tested with a group of users. This can be an incredibly valuable exercise to undertake and you will often find that an area of UX or functionality that seems to be clear to the designers completely confuses real users.

We had a real example of this during a recent project. We developed an online configurator for a product that is quite complex to buy. We were quite proud of this tool and both the client and the designers felt that the tool was very easy and intuitive to use but when the clickable prototype was put in front of users who do not know the product very well, it very quickly became clear that users got lost and found the tool hard to use. This failure was an incredibly valuable lesson and allowed us to go back and redesign the tool and retest it to much better success.

Some of the biggest and most successful companies in the world have made a point of celebrating failures that have come about through appropriate risk taking and innovation as well as their successes. 

Tata famously has a ‘Dare to Try’ award which is awarded to those failures that came through innovation and gave the company some valuable lessons. Proctor and Gamble have a ‘Heroic Failure’ award that honours employees or teams who gained the most insight from a failure. Facebook has grown through constant experimentation and risk taking.

What is common among these initiatives is that they encourage innovation and risk taking and accept that failures can offer very valuable lessons that then helps the organisation go on to succeed.

Of course, if a company is constantly failing and does not turn those failures into success, it is not going to last all that long, but a company that is afraid of failure and does not learn from it is rarely going to be a success.

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Branwell Moffat
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September 6, 2018
Branwell Moffat

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