Failure isn’t fatal in digital, it’s just part of the journey

Failure isn’t fatal in digital, it’s just part of the journey
With over 20 years of experience in business and software development, Jason Cohen is founder and CTO at WPEngine. He is a serial entrepreneur and founding member and mentor @CapitalFactory. You can connect with Jason on Twitter or subscribe to his blog.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  – Thomas Edison

I hate it when writers resort to dictionary definitions to make a point, but when I saw this thesaurus entry for the word “human,” I had to share. According to Merriam-Webster, the word human is defined as "of, relating to, or characteristic of humans as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses.” Synonyms include mortal, flesh and blood, fallible, and error-prone. To err is human. Thus, at the core of how we define ourselves lies concept of failure. It is an intrinsic part of who we are. Innovation is nonlinear, and every success is attended by failure.

We live in an age that is drunk on instant gratification, quick “likes” and taking the easy road. Innovators on the other hand must internalise the fact that progress is made possible through many little failures. It’s not that you should fail, but rather that, like it or not, you will fail. Having a more relaxed outlook about setbacks and experimentation allows entrepreneurs and inventors to push forward, faster. 

In the digital world, the challenges are immense. Audience expectations continue to grow, budgets continue to tighten, and the pressure to stay relevant is never-ending. With a marketing stack comprised of more than 6,500 technologies today, there’s a constant risk of betting the business on the wrong one. While the goal is clear, reaching it is usually not a straight line. For example, your team might have a goal of successfully incorporating AI (artificial intelligence) and AR (augmented reality) into your digital strategy. Only by experimenting, failing and pivoting will you know the right way to get there. Failing fast should be the inevitable side effect of progress and innovation. 

So how can marketers and technologists use the certainty of failure to systematically account for it as part of their day-to-day challenges? The key is to encourage a culture of experimentation in the form of small, iterative and cost-effective trials. Even better is to encourage a culture of exploration. It’s in these types of organisations where major breakthroughs and moon shots happen. Sometimes you land on the moon, sometimes you crash out on the launchpad.

We all agree that A/B testing is worthwhile, yes? The whole idea there is that almost everything we think of is not the best, i.e. failure. Certainly the first thing we think of is very unlikely to be good. In A/B testing we've accepted this as truth, so the question presents itself: How do we experiment easily until we find something good? Not: How do we always invent perfect headlines the first time?

This principle should be applied EVERYWHERE, not just for A/B testing. What hubris do you need to believe your decision-making or judgement is perfect everywhere except headlines? No, of course not. Test everything. Experiment with everything. Fail. "A/B" is only one technique — it's sometimes a great technique, sometimes not the right tool. But "don't be afraid to fail" is a rule that transcends the tool.

This approach helps digital marketers combat another problem: speed. If you’re spending months drafting landing pages, your competitors will do it in weeks or even days. If your content isn’t produced quickly and often, it runs the risk of being viewed as outdated and irrelevant. Timing is everything.

At the same time organisations shouldn’t become a slave to established processes, no matter how entrenched they are in company culture. Blindly following process can lead to many unintended consequences. Experienced leaders will use a less than stellar outcome as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. Be very cautious of the phrase, “we’ve always done it this way.” 

During the creative process, did you encourage your team to use their own humanity to their advantage? When you incorporate the potential for failure into the workflow, your team will end up asking themselves important questions: Your assumptions are mistaken; are you testing them? Your gut knows your logic isn’t airtight; are you listening? Your current ideas lead you to better ideas; are you adopting them? 

Eventually, you’ll realise that failure is powerful. You’ll do what you can to acknowledge it, learn to work through and around it rather than let it tank you or your efforts. An easy way to do that is to get people out of their comfort zones. When you ask smart people to innovate in their area of expertise, they will usually play it safe. Instead, ask your team to work in an area where they have more questions than answers. History’s most famous inventors failed early and often, but they never quit. 

While your team might be initially apprehensive to explore an area in which they don’t have much expertise, new challenges will provide the leeway for failure, learning and adaptation. Starting at ground level, they will inevitably fail but without bringing their expertise into question. This “novice mode’” encourages people, no matter their age or experience, to work in surprisingly innovative and productive ways. The phrase “fail fast” will become a welcome relief rather than a trendy burden. 

“Success is never final and failure never fatal. It's the courage to continue that counts.” So the organisation that learns, adapts, and those that evolve, will surpass others who don't evolve, even if others are initially better! This is why "learning" wins in the long run. There's no such thing as "learning" without "failure", unless you got 100% correct on every test you've ever taken. Therefore, "learning" is the goal, and failure is part of the journey.

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