Failure is not an option

To successfully grow your company today, failure is not an option, it’s an absolute necessity.



Failure became a dirty word


The Latin origin of the word failure comes from fallir, meaning to trip or to fall. At some point between the 1300s and today, the simple meaning of the word failure has become more commonly associated as the antithesis of growth. Failure refers to a lack of success and, as the argument goes, being unsuccessful is unacceptable.  In organizations that view failure as a negative event, failure is not an option.


Implications of failure-adverse cultures


With many of sales and marketing decisions you have to make, there are often two choices.  On one hand is the old reliable solution.  On the other, is the new untested idea that you create.


The failure-adverse organization generally thinks of untested ideas as risk, as something to fear.  This can manifest in unpleasant trips to the corner office, getting passed by for promotions or dismissal.  These repercussions create fear within the employee ranks, which creates a culture of avoidance over time.  The implication is that when facing a decision in this organization, you’d likely choose the historically reliable solution and not risk failure of your own untested ideas.  Choosing the historically reliable solution shields you from lashing should your unique solution, applied in your unique scenario, fails.  Within the failure-adverse organization, self-preservation and maintaining the status quo become strong motivators for choosing the historically reliable solutions.


However, the old reliable solutions in sales and marketing aren’t always as effective as they used to.  Many smart people have said that successful sales and marketing is all about communicating value. It used to be that companies were the exclusive creators and communicators of their value and consumers passively absorbed your messages.  Over the last ten years, customers have become active participants in creating value messages through earned media.  These powerful consumer generated impressions have become the most trusted source of your value creation story.  Leveraging your customer’s version your brand value is uncharted territory and requires testing new ideas.


Failure is natural


Ideas and products have similar life cycles.  Both are created, developed, optimized than harvested for as long as they stay relevant.  Eventually, products and ideas mature, lose ground then expire.  In this sense failure isn’t an option it’s inevitable. Failure is an inescapable truth and part of a natural growth and regeneration process.


The key to maintaining growth is to constantly create, test and develop new ideas.  Long before the old reliable way reaches the exploit and harvest phase of its lifecycle (see below), you’ll want to have selected a few of the best ideas or products most likely to deliver the next phase of your company’s growth.  In order to choose the best new product or idea, you’ll need to have created, tested, and eliminated the least likely to succeed ideas along the way. Before your company transfers it corporate weight from the old reliable to the new promising way, you’ll want to know your foot is resting on solid ground.



For a company to grow sustainably, it needs to constantly re-invent itself.  To reinvent oneself is to accept the risk of failing.   Since you and I learn so much from our failures, the culture that we work in has to support this important form of learning if we are to help re-invent the company and add to its sustainable growth.





1.  Meet with front line staff today and ask them if they have any simple ideas to improve the way you do things.

2. Create an internal idea forum like My Starbucks Idea so that employees can send, view, build on and share new ideas.

3. Assemble a skunkworks project team to find answers to great questions like – How might we design a sales experience that delivers the brand promise that marketing creates?

4. Learn from existing failures.  During weekly sales or marketing meetings, add “lessons we learned from failures” to the agenda.  Take this a step further and reward the person who shares the best lesson.

5. A/B test everything.  Divide your sales team in half or use part of your marketing budget to make short-term mini-experiments comparing one method to another.  The old reliable way is the A-version of the test and and the new untested way is the B-version.  Set the method of your experiment, collect the data, analyse and interpret the results to determine a winner.  Share your findings with others so that they can critique or replicate your test.

6. Ask your sales and marketing team to design prototypes of new solutions.  Drawings, photos, stories, physical objects or role playing are all forms of prototyping.  When your team is allowed to invest in the process, they’re more likely to implement the successful new models.



What are your thoughts?  How do you feel about failure in your company?

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