Failing Well

New Coke

Failure is part of innovation. Without it, we don’t move forward. Does anybody remember Starbucks Sorbetto smoothies? They lasted about a year. Apple rolled out one of the most amazing technological marvels in computing: the Cube. Anyone reading this post on a Cube? Hey, I’m going to take a break from writing this post and have an icy class of “New Coke.” Want some?

The best companies in the world make mistakes. The key is not to repeat them.

This winter, we failed to deliver on innovation to greater efficiency. Our organization produces an annual data book that contains all of the important statistics for the year. The workflow for gathering the data and producing the published book literally gave me a headache. It was a mess. It needed to be fixed. Here were the four key opportunities we faced in building the new system in a Microsoft SharePoint context:

  1. Empower local churches to enter their data. This frees up the regional conference offices administratively and puts the accountability of the statistics with the local pastor. The churches previously submitted their statistics to the regional conferences, which had to enter the data.
  2. Create a check and balance at the regional conference office to confirm the local church submission. The process would need to be a quick and easy way in which they could log in, check info, make changes if needed and hand the submission off to the national office.
  3. Create a similar check and balance at the national level for the regional conferences that would be quick and easy to approve and hand off to our team to publish.
  4. Create a way to export the data via XML that would feed into predesigned page templates in Adobe InDesign to make the publishing of the book quick and easy.

While we were building a new statistics and reporting application on SharePoint, we ran into several key roadblocks:

  1. The new reporting system asked some newer questions that weren’t clear to local churches. This caused some confusion, and we didn’t have an effective support or feedback loop.
  2. The check and balance for the regional conferences were neither quick nor easy. Because of some bugs in the check and balance, user frustration combined with an ineffective support/feedback loop.
  3. The national level’s check and balance proved to be neither quick nor easy.
  4. The conversion of the data to XML and feed into the templates didn’t work and required a lot of reverse engineering to produce an accurate proof.

To make matters worse, we lost the key person overseeing this project to another organization. This person left the project without completing some of the major pieces. No remaining team member had necessary institutional knowledge of the project. The opportunity to innovate with simplicity and efficiency failed.

Don’t Overreact.

Was the idea right? Yes. Was the implementation? Not by a long shot. We wound up frustrating our leadership and losing some of our credibility. We are still in the midst of digging out. It’s been a painful season in leadership and for the morale of the team. In the storm, we’re learning a few keys to survival:

  • Apologize. Don’t make excuses. Just say “sorry” and: “We’re going to do better next time.” We’ve seen failure so many times from sports figures, politicians or pastors. We don’t want to hear why it happened. We just want to know there is remorse with a desire to do it better next time.
  • Over-communicate. Keep the audience in the loop on the progress of fixing and delivering
  • Fix it. Commit to fix the problem. Throw every available resource on fixing the issue.
  • Don’t ever make that same mistake again

As a general rule, Americans are quick to forgive. Michael Vick was vilified for his dog-fighting conviction. He came out of it changed. He surrounded himself with better people, became a leader and hasn’t gotten in trouble since.

Netflix tried to separate its DVD rentals from online streaming services with the release of Qwikster. Its confused audience revolted against Qwikster, which went away. Netflix became the largest online streaming content provider.

Articles by the Wall Street Journal and CEB Financial Services speak to the kind of organizations that don’t have fear of working without mistakes. They innovate, create and move companies forward. Innovation is sometimes messy. But usually it’s in the mess that things actually move forward.

There’s nothing to fear. Failure is part of innovation. The key is that when hiccups occur, don’t hide behind them. Remember the reasons for innovation. Keep in front of you the desired destination as a goal. Get in front, stay in front, and persevere.

Care to Risk?

Where have you failed as a leader?  What did you learn?  I’d love to hear comments so we can encourage each other as we grow together.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.