Fail fast; learn faster

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According to Thomas Watson, IBM’s founder, “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”

This could be easier said than done, but Watson’s words are even truer now than when he spoke them. The barriers to experimentation are lowering by the day and our ability to learn is growing just as fast. Used properly, lower barriers to experimentation can help embolden your company to experiment in new ways and explore avenues it would otherwise avoid. The same is true, of course, for your competitors. To keep up, you have to launch fast, and learn from your failures as quickly as possible.

Such a mindset requires humility and a willingness to be wrong—as well as a commitment to iterating. But not all failure is equal. Failing without learning is wasted time and effort. Capturing what you’ve learned, acting on that new knowledge and sharing your results both inside and outside of marketing is failing smart.

This doesn’t happen on its own—it has to be embedded in the organization with consistent processes for experimenting, learning and acting on what you learn. With those processes in place, you can unlock a key to innovation.

Wendy Perchick
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

“We really try to embrace failure and rapid prototyping so that there isn’t any such thing as failture; there’s only learning.”

Roger Liew
Orbitz Worldwide

“You have to keep trying new things. That’s the fun part of working in a consumer-focused company; there is a lot of experimentation.”

Chris McCann

“I think being able to deal positively with failures is vital. It comes from a culture that encourages taking risks and learning when things don’t work out.”

Will Harris
Belvedere Vodka

“A good way to start is by deploying different messages or particular offers to different parts of the country to see what happens to traffic patterns or sales data and then course-correct as you go.”

Bill Watkins

“I looked at that opportunity and decided that it was just a matter of hard work. I put every engineer I could get my hands on into developing trial after trial after trial until we got a big breakthrough. And all of a sudden we found a recipe that solved the mismatch problem.”

Julie Cary

La Quinta Inn & Suites

“It’s easier to learn than ever before because you can just go try things and prove things out more quickly through A/B testing, test and control, etc.— the risk of trying new things is lower.”

Amy Bohutinksy

“Often in the first many years of growing as a brand and a business, you’re doing a lot of experimenting. You throw a lot of new products out there. Some succeed; some fail.”

Peggy Dyer
American Red Cross

“Two weeks before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we did our first test with mobile and it was an abysmal failure. We raised less than $1,000. But we learned lessons from it and during the disaster we raised $32 million from our text program, $10 at a time.”


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