I recently connected with my good friend and fellow researcher, Su Midghall. We were discussing our upcoming speaking engagements and Su mentioned she’d be speaking to a group of young women in business. “They’ve asked me to speak about the success of my business,” Su said, “but I’m going to speak about my failures instead.” Why? Su reasoned that likely all these women have heard about from previous speakers are successes – when what we really need excel at managing, both in life and in business, is failure.
That brief conversation with Su got me thinking about my own failures. Most of us only see success. Go to my LinkedIn profile and you’ll see a smiling face and a list of accomplishments and recommendations. What don’t you see? Along the way to that list of accomplishments, I left a job I loved for a job that made me miserable. I suffered through an unhealthy business partnership that I didn’t know how to leave. I launched a business and a product that suffered so many setbacks, it almost didn’t get off the ground. I’ve interviewed for jobs I loved but didn’t get offered. In my personal life, I’ve failed greatly at both tending to my garden and my relationships.
The upshot? Along the way I’ve gotten better. I’ve honed what I’m good at, figured out who I want to work with, and managed to build a career and a life around my strengths. I’ve taken product ideas that didn’t work and created new products that did. I’ve hired a gardener to combat my black thumb. I’m in a solid relationship and I’ve cultivated a tight circle of family and friends. We fail, we learn, we course correct (and, sometimes, we fail again). Even the word “success” is derived from the Latin word “succedre”…to come after. After what, you may ask? Failure.
Since I’ve seriously started assessing my own failures, and how important they’ve been in my own successes, I’ve been noticing failure everywhere. Pravin Shekar, Kreator-in-Chief at Krea, highlighted some of his key failures at a recent AMSRS conference in Sydney. At the ESOMAR Annual Congress in Istanbul, guest speaker (and chess champion) Gary Kasparov noted “trying to avoid failure- we are doomed to fail. Risk and failure are steps to success.” Researchers at the University of Birmingham in England found that giving up could make you more likely be successful in the end and National Geographic ran an eight page article in their September publication, highlighting failures in exploration, stating that “Even at their most miserable, failures provide information to help us do things differently next time. ‘I learned how not to climb, the first four times I tried to summit Everest,’ says alpinist Pete Athens, who’s reached the world’s highest peak seven times. ‘Failure gives you a chance to refine your approach. You’re taking risks more and more intelligently.’”
A few years ago I was invited to a small gathering with Richard Branson (yes, THE Richard Branson) where he discussed his successes, until someone in the group asked him to highlight his greatest business failure. Branson is known as a business man who never lets a failure pass without turning it into a stunning commercial reversal. Or at least ensuring that is how it’s perceived. He was forthcoming about his failed attempts to release a Virgin Cola bottle shaped like Pamela Anderson (which was apparently so top heavy that the bottle kept tipping over).
Fast Company recently highlighted Fab.com CEO Jason Goldberg, who has been called the next Jeff Bezos. Goldberg managed to drum up $325M in funding for Fab, even after the crash and burn of his first company, Jobster, which vaporised $48M in investor capital. How did he do it? Transparency. Many of us, myself included, have spent years trying to gloss over failures, afraid of what others might think or their impact on our ability to succeed. However, transparency breeds understanding and growth. When we acknowledge our failures, we open ourselves up to new conversations about what didn’t work and we create opportunities for learning.
Unfortunately our tribe, researchers, are some of the most reluctant to admit to failure, or even expose ourselves to the possibility of it – in large part because there is so much riding on the data we produce. This puts us in an awkward position. How do we grow as an industry if we’re so fearful of failure that we’re reluctant to innovate and change? Emerging methods like mobile, cross platform research, survey stitching and neuro are regularly discussed, spoken about, criticised and editorialised, but still rarely used. With explosive growth in emerging markets, rapid evolution of technology and an increasingly dissatisfied and unengaged respondent pool, we are reaching a tipping point. At what point are we forced to evolve?
Clients, as advocates for new product development, are a critical component of our evolution as an industry. When we launched online movie trailer testing at OTX in 2000, we couldn’t have succeeded without Dan Rosen, then the head of research for Warner Bros. Dan was a fearless advocate for online and he truly believed that, although our methods weren’t perfect, this new research method was going to be an industry game changer. He was right, but it was only because we had Dan standing with us, ready to accept failure as a cost of doing things differently that we were able to ultimately succeed. We failed, we refined, we succeeded. Similarly, I’m encouraged to see firms like General Mills and their mobile research innovator, Andy Dybvig. Andy is a thought leader for the General Mills Global Consumer Insights function- responsible for leading the group’s transition from traditional online and in-person research methods to mobile. Andy is, so far as I’ve experienced, absolutely fearless when it comes to mobile and I’m encouraged that a firm as large as General Mills is playing a key role in the evolution of our industry.
So how do we get more comfortable with failure? Be bold. Practice transparency. Trust and engage with your clients as partners and advocates. In the words of Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail Again. Fail better.”