The Failure to Fail

Yahoo!'s recent woes are an interesting business story, one I was reminded of recently after participating in a panel discussion about technology and innovation at the 2016 PSP Annual Conference in Washington, DC.

During the session, Chris Kenneally from the Copyright Clearance Center asked the panelists (Sarah Tegen from the American Chemical Society and Phil Faust from Gale/Cengage also participated) to name a failure that had been instructive, and how each person moved forward from there, all in the context of the Silicon Valley meme of "fail fast."

When it was my turn, I recalled the experience early in my career of working for a small publishing company led by a CEO who believed (quite rightly) that it was faster and cheaper to put a product on the market with clear expectations and measurements, see how it performed, and if it failed to meet expectations, pull it down. The company became very good at launching, measuring, and either building on success or avoiding costly failures. In short, this organization didn't fail to fail -- that is, it failed a product when it needed to. It didn't keep struggling products around out of sentimentality or false hopes.

"Failing to fail" may be a key type of failure dogging a number of organizations these days.

Back in this early career incubator, the comfort with "failing fast" bred a culture of experimentation and clear-eyed measurement that was reassuring and energizing. Most people were involved in a product launch at some point each year, so you didn't get rusty or bored. Market research was done quickly and with an eye toward key metrics focused on a quick market entry and upside exploration. Investments were relatively small, and the spending and results were known to all, because measuring results was key to knowing when to pull the plug or build on a winner.

The organization succeeded about 30% of the time with product introductions. Because the bets were small on the losers and the plug was pulled quickly, the winners more than offset the expense of small failures. Sometimes, the organization would hit a home run, and have a crown jewel. Other times, the results would be solid, fit into a portfolio we were building, and add punch and vitality while being financially viable. The failures were quickly forgotten. It wasn't an emotional experience. It was business.

Is your organization "failing to fail" at anything? Is it holding onto projects, products, or services that are "dead men walking" from a financial, market, or strategic perspective? Failing to fail isn't a guarantee against failure. In fact, it may be just the opposite.