Fail fast, fail well: How to learn from failure

Failure can evoke such strong negative emotions it’s rarely considered a positive experience. After all, no one consciously sets out to fail. But there’s so much value in the experience if lessons are learned and applied next time around. It’s how we grow as marketing experts, indeed as humans.

Opportunities only exist in environments of high uncertainty. So the more entrepreneurial we are, the more we’re experimenting into the unknown.

[Dean Shepherd, TEDxTUM]

So, let’s talk about taking the high road and how to learn from failure in order to fail well.

What does it mean to fail?

Failing means the goal wasn’t achieved, success was not found and ambitions were not met. It can evoke a powerful emotional response and can be a dark place, so much so that fear of failure can be utterly disabling. This is especially true if you’ve worked in a ‘carrot and stick’ type culture where mistakes as met with sticks every time. Who wants to put up with that for the sake of learning? I know I don’t.

We can’t always control whether or not a project, a campaign or a marketing tactic will succeed or fail, but we can control our response to the situation.

Failure makes your mind trick you into believing things that aren’t true. Unless you learn to respond to failures in psychologically adaptive ways, they will paralyze you, demotivate you, and limit your likelihood of success going forward.

[Psychologist Guy Winch Ph.D.]

Failure can cause ‘an emotional wound’, and as a wounded animal, it’s only natural for our primitive brain to shy away from the very thing that hurt us previously. We still contain those base level responses from times gone by when our main aim was surviving day to day. But in our modern lives, avoiding perceived harm from failure is how marketers become less and less brave with new tactics and new ideas. It’s a feeling that needs to be countered if we’re to achieve success and here’s what I’ve learnt about overcoming the natural feeling of helplessness after a failure.

1. Compare the actual results with the desired outcome

Did you miss the mark by a millimetre or a country mile? Was the failure predictable in a previously tried and tested operation? Was it unavoidable due to insurmountable complexity or unavoidable challenges? Or did something entirely unexpected occur? Compare the actual results with the original objective to determine whether the activity could be refined and repeated or if it’s one to consign to the past.

2. Identify the controlled and uncontrolled variables

If the failure occurred in an otherwise tried and tested operation, why did the result deviate from the usual outcome? Did an uncontrolled variable have an unknown impact? If the failure was entirely unexpected, what unexpected variables were encountered?

I find it helpful to list out the variables I attempted to control for and those that impacted the activity that were not or could not be controlled. There will inevitably be variables that are outside your control, so it’s important to rationalise their potential impact on the failure. I find it helpful to map controlled an uncontrolled variables according to their scale and impact. Usually this is as simple as writing a two column list on a page and quite quickly I can see what’s caused the failure.

3. Analyse and find the why

Remember to keep in mind that in order for the failure to be productive and useful, you need to compile your findings into analysis and develop that into the insights you will carry forward for the next experiment. Find the why. Why did it happen? And crucially, what can I do differently next time?

Over the years I’ve been keeping track of failures and the lessons I’ve learned from them. It’s my reference guide, my go-to book of knowledge and my hope is that I will never stop adding to it.

So go ahead. Fail. But fail well, and get all the benefit you can from the process of experimenting.

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