Failure is an option: The importance of risk-taking to your organization

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Like most rational, competitive people, I hate the feeling of failure. Disappointment. Anger. Embarrassment. We’ve all felt the red-faced sting of missing a goal. This fear of failure is perfectly reasonable, and even healthy in a high-performing organization. As a society, we even have silly clichés as a testament to our hatred of losing—“failure is not an option” … “refuse to lose!”.

OK, so we all agree that we hate failure. We won’t accept it from ourselves, and we certainly won’t tolerate it from our employees or agency partners. So in order to avoid all semblance of failure, we should avoid risk, stick to what we know and repeat what has worked for us in the past. We won’t redesign that website; we won’t launch that new ad campaign; and we certainly won’t boldly trek into new markets or uncharted waters like social or mobile. Right?

Alas, we all intrinsically understand that innovation and marketing greatness occur only with the acceptance of risk. A delicate balancing act, indeed. So how can marketing leaders continue building a track record of success while simultaneously taking risks?
There is absolutely no single right answer or approach. And anyone who tells you there is should be ignored (or at least unfollowed). In my experience the key to striking this delicate balance lies in these eight essential tenets:

  1. Understand the goal. As a leader, you must recognize when a project is mission critical with zero room for failure, and when you can afford to take some chances on a particular initiative. If you can’t identify whether this is a time to hit the gas or the brake, you’re heading for an accident.
  2. Understand your audiences. Some companies simply don’t have the DNA for risk. Before you stick your neck out, it’s wise to understand whether your organization has a true appetite for innovation (and the corresponding risks). Also, are your users/customers open to new ideas or do they resist change?
  3. Decode your team’s DNA. Some people go to Vegas for high-stakes poker; others prefer the nickel slots. You have to understand the make-up of the people you’re asking to go out on a limb. For some, it’s exhilarating and another reason they love working for your company. For others, it’s an impossibly uncomfortable experience that’s destined for failure.
  4. Know thyself. Just like you have to know your team, you must be honest with yourself. Some marketing leaders are happiest and most effective as pioneering explorers. Others are world-class park rangers. Both are valuable, but they’re not interchangeable.
  5. Define success. How are you keeping score? For some initiatives, the definition of success may be learning, in which case failure is a necessary and productive part of the journey. For other projects, success may be determined by revenue, clicks or some other hard, bottom-line metric, in which case there are no bonus points for aiming high and failing. At uTest, we have these hard discussions up front, long before we decide how we’re going to go about executing.
  6. Talk it out. Talk to your team about risk, failure and innovation openly and honestly, early and often. They need to understand what you care about, your views on failure, and your company’s risk profile. When leaders stop talking about innovation, acceptance of risk and failure, that silence speaks volumes to your organization.
  7. The more you know. Ultimately, marketing execs need to demonstrate what has been gained in any project—either tangible market results or actionable learnings. In order to do either, you must be able to measure and track meticulously. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you’re there?
  8. Live your words. Actions speak louder than words. If you take someone’s head off for failure on a project when you espoused risk-taking, then be prepared to be surrounded by people that resemble wilting flowers. You must reward calculated risk-taking in order to see more of it

In this era of hyper-competition, the marketing team that isn ’t trying new and innovative things will eventually lose (market share, mind share, key employees, et al.). The challenge for marketing leaders is to develop a team that understands the true nature of projects, identifies the risks, works to mitigate them, and then values the results of a well executed plan—win or lose.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know marketing leaders cannot control the outcome of each individual game—we can only set our brands up to maximize the likelihood of success. And that, in and of itself, is success.

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