Peloton crashed last month on price resistance—which wasn’t helped by characters on prominent TV shows having heart attacks on their bikes. Glossier, the skin care and beauty products brand, laid off a third of its company in part because other d-to-c brands beat it to retail stores—which weren’t in the Glossier strategy. Both organizations misjudged predictable competitive responses.
These are outward signs of how a decades-old approach—the “plan for success” ethos followed by generations of executives and codified in business schools—chokes growth. Especially today—with an MBA the prerequisite for a chief marketing officer role—we risk conditioning ourselves to fly blind by failing to identify and preempt obvious ways our plans can go wrong.
The success trap hampers high-growth brands most of all. They predictably rise to inflection points where they can’t afford to fail and are unprepared if they do. That’s why 50% of startups fail and 75% of venture capital firms go out of business. They’re basing the business on the wrong fundamental question.
Ask any business leader to define success, and you’ll get a detailed account of their strategy, SMART goals, KPIs and every other aspect of what winning means to them. All these ideas root in assumptions that become tripwires.
Instead, we need to lean into failure from the start. How we’ll fail forms the basis of the bulletproof strategy we covet. Failure is avoidable when we plan rigorously for it. Base foresight on the obstacles in our path–from multiple perspectives and scenarios–and we can avoid the dislocation that crisis forces upon the enterprise:
Ask preventative questions
Surface all the potential holes in the fabric of strategy by asking key questions including: Will we have enough time to get this done properly? What resources are we not accounting for? Are key decision makers going to be traveling or unavailable at key moments in the timeline? Do we have the content we need to create the experience we're looking for? Do we have the right people in place to tackle this? Will we have employee buy-in? Will we have investor buy-in?
Focus on clarity
Clarity is the antidote to failure. When teams are clear on what can cause failure, they can plan the right prevention. The uncertainty of not knowing vanishes, and with it the stress and burnout it causes. They begin to see approaches that yield fresh ideas and feel prepared and confident that disruptions won’t derail them. The current ethos of managerial inclusion–getting everyone together around a plan–can strengthen this approach by revealing potential problems from every angle.
When we quantify failure, we can prioritize and optimize against it. Define failures, consider their likelihood and prioritize them according to the impact they carry. By developing responses from there and assigning a single team member to prevent each failure, we can create airtight accountability and even discover any gaps in the team. Accountability for preventing a specific failure removes the likelihood of team members manufacturing success stories in their jobs.
Align around failure
Focusing solely on success breeds a culture of fear. Because team members don’t consider failure, it looms as the ultimate catastrophe. Rather than a culture where failure is part of the journey toward success—as Silicon Valley has long advocated—we need a culture where failure is beatable. Instead of celebrating failure as a gateway, we need to prize the identification and solution of potential pitfalls early, often and consistently.
Reorient performance evaluations
Ditch KPIs and OKRs and focus teams on prevention. Restructure performance reviews to include the failures the team prevented in addition to the successes they accomplished. It’s not enough to motivate teams to achieve goals. We need to train them to succeed by identifying and organizing potential obstacles and creating ways to mitigate them.
When a team focuses on what can cause failure, it starts to build muscle memory around those events. Most become avoidable. Even when big problems do happen, they don’t experience catastrophic stress and are able to respond decisively.
As marketers, entrepreneurs and business leaders, we have far more control than we assume. We simply must shift our focus from how we’ll win to how we’ll fail–within clients and agencies alike. Then we can align and prepare our organizations to make the right moves when change hits, as it always will.