The Virtue of Failure

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

Is your company tuned to do things wrong – a lot?

Few organizations are. Mistakes are considered to be something to avoid, an embarrassing lapse in judgment or misreading of the market. Bonuses are lost and heads may roll. But in an Internet market that seems to move faster by the day, a tolerance for trial and error is actually becoming a virtue.

The New York Times wrote last week about Google’s decision to shut down four services, including a virtual world called Lively and a Twitter alternative called Jaiku. The article has some interesting insight into one of the world’s most admired companies and its institutional tolerance for getting things wrong.

Dog-Fooding
Google tests its products internally with employees as kind of a first-tier reality check, a process it calls “dog-fooding.” It then rolls them out to the market with its famous “beta” label and aggressively listens. Its blogs are a water cooler around which customers cluster and comment. The company also monitors prominent bloggers to gauge their reactions.

Google doesn’t pursue projects unless they’re remarkable. That means they must inspire not only willingness but the enthusiasm among employees, developers and ultimately customers. It even has fun with its shortcomings. While using the new offline feature in Gmail recently, I was confronted with this message: “Sorry, but Gmail offline doesn’t support attachments yet. We know this is lame, but consider that the first version didn’t even have folders.” How many companies can make fun of themselves that easily?

This cycle of open review and frequent adjustment is becoming the way fast companies do business in rapidly changing markets. Contrast that with the accepted standard of a decade ago, when product development involved nondisclosure agreements, locked rooms and media silence.

And contrast the results. In the old days, hackers and the media gleefully jumped on the new release of any technology product in a rush to find flaws. Software companies actually failed because their products were too buggy.

How that equation has flipped. Today, innovative companies make public bug hunts a core part of the development process. Instead of allowing flaws to be cast in a negative light, they become part of the process of continual improvement. It turns out that when you don’t hide from your mistakes, people actually are happy to help you fix them.

Do It Wrong
In his recent book Do it Wrong Quickly, Mike Moran argues informed trial-and-error is essential for modern companies. And it’s not limited to technology. Moran believes that marketers need to conduct their business this way as well. With dozens of avenues now available to them to deliver a message, the only way to succeed is to constantly try new ideas. The ability to double down on winners and quickly scrap losers is more important than methodically studying every option in advance.

This is easier said than done. Over the past 20 years, nearly every region in the US has tried to duplicate Silicon Valley remarkable success at incubating new technologies. All these efforts have failed. In my view, a major reason is that Silicon Valley companies have a constructive attitude toward failure. Good ideas fail for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the value isn’t clearly defined or the timing is simply bad. Most Valley millionaires have a few flops on their resume. The difference is that the culture of the region doesn’t penalize them for that. After all, we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

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