Is it fear of failure or the fear of the lack of absolute success?


What does it take to make a company more entrepreneurial, more agile?

This is a question that I’ve discussed with colleagues periodically from time to time, and I remember having this discussion with a colleague who has established several start-ups.

Memorable, because start-ups are seen as examples of entrepreneurial spirit, agility and speed at its best, and I was curious to learn the difference between his experience versus my own; someone who has worked predominantly in “traditional” business environments and structures her entire career.

In context of our company culture that espouses entrepreneurship (in fact Publicis Groupe recently announced Publicis90, a global initiative to foster it), we got to talking about how the willingness to fail is a critical element of successful entrepreneurship, because it allows risk-taking and speed in decision-making.

The mantra of “fail fast, fail often” is well known, discussed widely in books, forums, reported endlessly on.

But here, I offer a different viewpoint. In this new world of complexity, failures – and its antonym ‘successes’ – need to be viewed as a scale, in shades of greys.

Where in a past, pre-digital, pre-agile environment, you would deem anything that is not a success a failure (in fact, the first definition of the word “failure” in Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to not succeed”),  new ways of working requires us to re-think what it means to fail and succeed.

As a result of digital, businesses now need to move faster than before to keep ahead of the curve. Companies now aim to get products to the market faster so that they are able to shorten the customer feedback loop and quickly improve on their product, as opposed to developing a perfect product over years and have it fail upon launch because of lack of customer testing and feedback. A good example is how Microsoft releases beta versions of its software, although there are many companies now who do it even faster.

In this context then, what constitutes success and failure? When you get a Minimum Viable Product out in the market, the aim is to learn from customers, which implies that you accept that there might/will be aspects of the product that can be improved. So when the product only performs to 80% of its intended purpose, is it a success or a failure? Or 70%? 60%? 50%?

If you launch a communications or marketing campaign, and it doesn’t perform as well at launch, but with rapid iteration, it steadily improves in performance. Was that a success or a failure?

With products, processes and people in permanent beta now, what does the phrase “fail fast, fail often” really mean?

Coming back to the discussion with my colleague, it got really heated, and I was then asked: “Have you failed before?”

That stopped me in my tracks, and that is what got me thinking about what failure means. I have failed miserably before, although those have been (thankfully) few.

But, have I not succeeded before? Yes, plenty of times. Many projects that I’ve run don’t go as expected, especially when your outcomes are reliant on the decisions of others (whether it be pitching to influencers, media, or in my current job working through a dotted line network across business units).  Does it mean that I fail when things don’t go as expected? It just means I constantly adjust until I get the result I need (or at least as close to) with the resources I have.

What if trumpeting this mantra of “fail fast, fail often” is actually inhibiting entrepreneurship and risk-taking? Which individual, investor or stakeholder wants to fail, and fail often at that? What if we reframed it as “Test fast, learn fast”?

Perhaps if we re-thought how we thought about success and failure, and re-thought how we talked about the elements of entrepreneurship, we might get better results.

As always, my thoughts are in permanent beta, so I welcome your views as well.


The Importance of Reframing the Problem

Design Thinking Definition

Something that the lecturer said that struck me during the Design Thinking Module: Many clients already know the solution when they send the brief to us. All they are asking for is the ‘how’. It may be worth reframing the problem as it may open up a bigger space for opportunities.

A very simple analogy that was raised in class:

  1. Develop a design for a chair in which a person can sit comfortably
  2. Develop a way in which a person can sit comfortably

With the first statement, you are confined to designing a chair. The statement already tells you what solution is.

The second opens a whole new set of possibilities. It could be a chair, a bean bag, and swing or so much more.

How can we open a new set of possibilities when meeting our clients’ briefs?

Getting to the Heart (and Brain) of the Matter

Jonathan Briggs introducing Professor Calvert at the beginning of the talk
Jonathan Briggs introducing Professor Calvert at the beginning of the talk

I attended a fascinating neuromarketing talk at Hyper Island by Professor Gemma Calvert, Director for Research & Development at the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight at the Nanyang Technological University.

Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience to marketing to uncover consumers’ subconscious needs, preferences and biases.

Three things that I found most enlightening that triggered some thoughts relating to my work in Learning & Development:

  1. People don’t do what they say they do
  2. Speed of an emotional response trumps the speed of a rational one
  3. A congruent multi-sensory experience has significantly more impact than one-faceted experience

People don’t do what they say they do.

Some standard marketing research tools may not be effective because of three things we know about people:

  1. They don’t always tell the truth
  2. They don’t think how they feel
  3. They don’t do what they say

In the case of 1. it can happen, particularly in Asia, when we don’t want to embarrass or offend the other party, or admit to a flaw or an undesirable behavior, or it is an uncomfortable or taboo topic that we want to avoid discussing.

Many also don’t think of how they feel. Consumers who are asked about how they feel about – or why they prefer – a product may make up an answer to rationalize an emotionally-led decision. In an agency environment, where everything moves extremely fast, a lot of colleagues move on instinct, especially in people / HR matters. Part of my job requires a lot of understanding of how people work, and I often ask leaders to tell me about what they look for in new hires, why they approach situations in a particular way etc. And I have discovered that quite a few find it hard to articulate their feelings and rationale for their behavior, even though they are extremely successful in their business, because they’ve never consciously thought of it.

Finally, many don’t do what they say, because they make up an answer to rationalize an instinct- or emotion-led decision.

In the area of Talent, this brings to mind the various surveys we do to detect the ‘pulse’ of the workforce: training surveys, engagement surveys, you name it. Employees may be overthinking their responses, or responding because they think that’s they way they should respond. So how accurate is the data we collect, and subsequently how effective and impactful is our talent planning as a result?

During the talk, Professor Calvert also spoke about Implicit Reaction Time tests, which are tests conducted at a speed that bypasses the conscious brain. These can be mobile or web based and are scalable. What if we applied this to our staff engagement surveys to uncover what they really think about the company? I wonder if results would be significantly different.

Speed of an emotional response trumps the speed of a rational one

There are two brain systems that control our behavior. One is Unconscious Emotion, which is very fast, involuntary and associative. The other is Conscious Thinking, which is slow, considered, and rule following.

In managing people, particularly in difficult and conflict situations, facts are important. However, managers often neglect to address the emotion behind it. So they may have addressed the situation, but may not have solved the problem. The team member continues to be unhappy even if the solution is the right one. Knowing that emotion drives our decisions, and that we rationalize them, addressing the emotion might be as equally important as discussing the facts and next steps.

A congruent multi-sensory experience has significantly more impact than one-faceted experience

The brain is built to integrate information coming in from different senses. Receiving sensory information that are complimentary to each other can be significantly more powerful than receiving it only from one source.

An example: Pringles taste 15% fresher and crisper when high frequency sounds were boosted in real time. So the crispness of the packaging enhances perception of crispness and freshness of potato chips.

Extrapolating this to the workplace, perhaps we need to start paying attention to the employee experience. In many companies, systems are not integrated, or are not viewed holistically, so employees do not gain a consistent message or experience in the company. If a company prizes collaboration, is collaborative working integrated into the infrastructure, rewards, and even the way training workshops are run? If a company prizes innovation, how is it encouraged and rewarded? How is innovation reflected in the corporate policies and the business operations, and not just innovation only for its consumers products or services? If a company wants to increase its digital revenues, how should its IT infrastructure change to support it?

How would making these changes impact performance in the workplace?