The Fail First Strategy

josh seq 3There are many lessons that marketers can “borrow” from the IT industry. “Open source”, for example, has changed the way that many of us conceive of ideas – they are no longer considered the proprietary property of one company/business (or they aren’t in most cases) – after all, ideas are the easy part, execution where it gets difficult. (In fact, we can really wonder whether ideas EVER were owned or whether this was just a convenient illusion.)

Most recently, I have been pondering the concept of “failing fast” –  see the wikipedia entry here. It is a systemic approach to programming that aims to identify and report on failures – or events that are likely to cause failures. The focus of the programmer is on passing the message “FAIL” up to a system that is built to respond. There are two important aspects (that I can see):

  1. The program escalates the issue or failure to another level of responsibility
  2. The program also halts before the failure replicates, spreads or becomes embedded in other systems

From a marketing point of view, there is much to learn from this. And in light of the debacles around Motrim Moms and MyFutureBank more locally, the lessons could and should be absorbed by marketers very quickly:

  1. Listen. As Amber Naslund points out, there are plenty of free tools that can be used to begin monitoring what is being said about your brand, products and services. Start with Google alerts. But please, start.
  2. Step-in. If you are not listening to the online conversations, the echo chamber tends to get louder and louder. As this escalates and draws more voices into the conversation, the absence of an “official voice” means that there is no way to diffuse the conversation. This leads, as Alan Wolk suggests, to overreaction. Once you are at that point, there is no return.
  3. Participate. When you start actually participating you will make mistakes – you may need to slay some sacred cows. But that’s ok … it’s the way we learn. By building relationships you are also creating a community/network. These are the folks who will let you know if someone else it talking about your brand.
  4. Learn. There is much to learn by following the first three steps. Take this information and share it with your product development and customer service teams. Use this to transform what you deliver to your markets and how you treat your customers.

Despite the benefits of the fail-fast approach, however, the brave brand manager may want to take a more tangible, proactive and accelerated path – to FAIL FIRST.

Under a fail first strategy, you already accept that there will be mis-steps. You acknowledge that issues will arise that you won’t be able to control. In fact, the approach means taking a POSITION that people can buy into or work against. It is drawing a line in the sand.

Then, once the controversy starts or the conversation begins, you work them both equally using the same four steps above. Those who like what you are doing will converse. Those who don’t will cause chaos. Engage with both and use them to cross-pollinate ideas. Learn from the nay-sayers how and where you can improve your products. Activate and empower your evangelists to tell their stories.

Now, I don’t advocate such a strategy for all brands. But there are some who could do it. And for those who can stand the heat, there are great benefits to flow from failing first and learning. But remember, you need to PLAN a fail first strategy. You need the systems and fall-back strategies in place that can help you overcome the failure. You need the management support to hold course.

The Motrim debacle could have been turned around. Many similar “crises” could. What would you do differently? Would you dare to fail first? What do you think it takes to create the most successful failure in marketing history?

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2 thoughts on “The Fail First Strategy

  1. I think this is symptomatic of the rapid speed of the modern digital marketplace. Innovation is happening at such a rapid pace now that being first to market is usually a rush.
    I call it the READY, FIRE, AIM approach. Get a product or service to market quickly to get the first mover advantage then fine tune.
    Apple has done this for a while now. They imagine amazing products, release them very shortly after announcement then improve them. Only the absolute Apple disciples purchase first gen Apple products. The rest of us wait to see if the product is really good and ensure they have worked the bugs out.

  2. “But remember, you need to PLAN a fail first strategy.”
    This is the hidden gem in this post. I’m all for taking calculated risks – it’s how you learn, grow, evolve as a business and a brand. But you must do so understanding that while you may not be able to predict the outcome, you need to be prepared to pick up the pieces, wherever they may fall.
    I see far too many companies embrace the “devil may care” attitude that says YES! We can fail! It’s ok! Then when they do, they’re somehow surprised, and not ready to pick up and move on.
    Love your stuff, Gavin. Smart thinking.

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