In Praise of Failure

I was chatting recently with Sam Decker, chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice, about his company’s somewhat counterintuitive business. Its customers use Bazaarvoice to enable their customers to post product reviews and ratings right on their own websites.

I asked why would a company invite visitors to publicly criticize its products this way.  He told the story of one importer who sells a large and eclectic collection of overseas goods.  Customer ratings revealed that about one third of its inventory of more than 600 products would never sell well because of aesthetics, utility or other reasons.  The company used this feedback to quickly overhaul its inventory. Had it waited for customer objections to show up in sales figures, the process would have taken months longer.

Fear of Failure

If you have ever worked for a large company, you know that failure isn’t considered a good thing.  Losing products or business initiatives are usually killed off only after long and expensive efforts to save them. Powerful people stick with pet projects even in the face of overwhelming customer indifference.  People who fail are reprimanded.  People who fail repeatedly get fired.

Social media offers unprecedented ways to avert this syndrome, or at least to cut it short. By listening to customers, we can identify and fix shortcomings much earlier in the product lifecycle. By engaging in continuous dialogue, we are more likely to hit the market head on with new products. If we don’t let failure become some kind of referendum on our self-worth, then we are much freer to experiment.

I look at Google as being the most visible practitioner of the philosophy.  Spend a little time with the company’s line of applications and you’ll soon discover its amusing portfolio of error messages. “Whoa! Google Chrome just crashed!” says one. Another moans “We know this is lame, but consider that Gmail didn’t even have folders in its first version.”  Google is a company that doesn’t mind admitting its shortcomings because it knows customers would rather see that it working to get things right than pretending that everything’s okay when it clearly isn’t.

Google_LivelyGoogle also isn’t afraid to cut its losses. The company has shut down more than a half-dozen products and services in the last year, including Lively, it’s virtual world (left). It has also closed a couple of high-profile business ventures. Google makes no attempt to hide these business decisions but rather explains its reasoning on employee blogs. That’s because Google sees itself as an innovator, and innovative companies don’t mind getting things wrong now and then.  In fact, a company that doesn’t make mistakes isn’t trying hard enough.

Shoot the Losers

Unfortunately, few corporate cultures are confident enough to work this way. One of the most common questions I am still asked by audiences is how to avoid negativity in social media. My honest answer is why would you want to avoid it?  The faster you correct problems, the less damage is done. It might have been possible to ignore mistakes a few years ago, but that’s no longer an option. We can talk with our customers about our shortcomings or they will simply talk amongst themselves.  Which would you rather do?

It’s often been said that the reason Silicon Valley became such a foundry of technology innovation is that the culture accepts and even celebrates failure as a consequence of risk-taking.  In today’s media landscape, failure is no longer a private matter. Social media tools enable us to minimize the risks and consequences of our mistakes if we simply own up to them. It turns out that’s not nearly as difficult as we used to think it was.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Failure

  1. Paul,
    I really enjoyed this post. Great point about how Google (and other companies) are humanizing their “error messages”.

    I think that approach can truly help to improve user experience with an application.


  2. Nice work Paul! This post actually did an excellent job of saying something that I’ve been working on in a different context. If you want to be an innovator, you have to get beyond the fear of failure! I really liked your take on the culture in Silicon Valley. If you are entering into a business that has a clear-cut and proven path to success, then it is almost certainly overcrowded and not at all innovative. I think that the most exciting thing about 21st century businesses is that they are almost all operating in uncharted waters. This is challenging, but more rewarding.

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