I once asked the owner of a large venture capital company from outside the UK how he decided on who to back with his money. One of the most revealing things was his approach to failure. He would ask every candidate to describe their greatest failure and if they couldn’t come up with one they would get rejected immediately (oh the irony that they failed the question).
He said if you have never failed you have never taken a significant risk and learnt how to deal with what happens when it goes wrong. In the UK, he noted, people are reluctant to talk about failure. For him, embracing failure was a sign you had what it takes to succeed.
I have certainly had my fair share of failures. I remember doing a talk on ‘My five greatest failures’ and it was over-subscribed. We may not like to talk about our failures but we do like to listen to others revealing theirs. Make of that what you will.
Failure is an orphan
I was once in a review meeting of a product launch I had led on that was being withdrawn from the market, a consequence of it being overly complex and slower-than-expected sales. After taking some difficult questions, a very senior leader I worked for claimed he knew this project was flawed from the start and could see it all coming. I was livid as he had signed it off and never once raised his concerns. I was being thrown under the bus.
Recalling what happened in the meeting, my immediate boss, who completely empathised with me, said “unfortunately success has many fathers but failure is an orphan”.
A similar thing happened many years later on a much larger scale. Following the reformulation of Lucozade in response to the sugar tax we had experienced a very significant consumer backlash. What had been a unanimous team decision to reformulate suddenly morphed into a “marketing problem”.
One thing failure always creates is a void. Everyone is so busy disassociating themselves from any involvement in the project that no-one actually takes ownership of what happened. This is particularly true in large companies where it can feel more like a game of reputation management than performance management.
That said, “marketing problem” meant that we had to take ownership of the problem. As marketers, we represent the customer where decisions are made and that puts us in the best position to understand and resolve the problem, even if it isn’t obviously within your expertise. It can feel quite scary to be the one looking into what went wrong but this is exactly the kind of thing that marks you out as a leader.
Leadership involves taking tough decisions that you know won’t be unanimously liked, owning the failure even when it isn’t your fault, judging a situation independent of the politics of who might be affected and creating an environment where it’s safe to fail.
Be open to what actually went wrong
I think if I had to pick one failure to top my list it would be the relaunch of JuiceBurst. We had been given around four months to design a new bottle, label and formulation, something that would normally be a 12- to 18-month project. At the same time, we were using the relaunch to win lots of new listings. Everything appeared to be fine until we started getting consumer complaints about mould in the juice. What started as two or three a day turned into hundreds, to the point where we had to recall the product and close the factory down.
An entire pallet of drinks was opened and to our horror around half of the bottles had the first signs of mould.
An expert was brought in to identify why this was happening. After about six months, almost 100 changes that had to be made were identified. What was revealing is that the reasons we were convinced were causing the mould in the first few weeks turned out to be wrong and only a thorough review uncovered what was actually happening.
The exact same thing happened with Lucozade. The rush to deny any responsibility delayed identification of the problem. It is critical to keep an open mind and ensure that no one feels like they might be under suspicion.
Use failure to fuel success
The interesting twist in my talk about my greatest failures is that they all happened to lead to my greatest successes.
The product withdrawal at Britvic was a failure but we still doubled the size of the brand in three years. The JuiceBurst mould saga felt catastrophic at the time but once we fixed the problem and relaunched, we became the fastest-growing soft drink brand for two years in a row. The Lucozade reformulation was extremely damaging at the time but within a year the brand was back in growth.
I once heard the story of someone who had lost the company an enormous amount of money. He went straight to the CEO with his resignation. The CEO turned around and said “I just spent $20m on your education, do you really think I am going to let that go to waste”.
Failure often teaches us far better lessons than success so never let that go to waste or defeat you. After all, as we used to say in soft drinks, “it’s just fizzy pop”.