marketing continuous improvement culture - Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

“Do you think it is ok to fail in your company? Raise your hand if you feel it’s ok.”

This was the question I asked the audience at a pharma digital marketing conference recently. As many of you know, being in a hotel meeting room with no windows for a two-day meeting is depressing. Being in that same room looking at a sea of bemused faces with arms folded defiantly, is beyond depressing. In that moment you couldn’t fail to see that there is a problem in the industry.

It is widely accepted and expected that only about one in ten drugs survive clinical trials to make it to market. In recent years rising market pressures have driven an ethos to ‘fail early and fail cheaply’, but nonetheless everyone understands that a degree of failure is the price to pay for breakthrough innovation. So why does this culture of failure fuelling progress not bleed through to other departments – from R&D in to marketing and sales?

Failing Without Learning is a Marketers Biggest Failure of All

High on the verbiage of Silicon Valley, I’ve heard many marketers in the industry talking up the ‘fail fast’ mantra. The reality, it seems from my anecdotal evidence and my hand-raise poll, suggests that is exactly that. Talk.

If you’ve read ‘Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success“, you’ll already know that the most successful industries, companies and people are those that have the winning combination of processes and a culture that recognise failure as a learning opportunity. A chance to learn more about our customers and ourselves. This is the true essence of ‘failing fast’. In most companies teams are strategically ‘balancing on a ladder with one leg’.

  • They either talk about ‘SMART’ objectives, KPI reporting and testing approaches but lack the processes to institutionalise a continuous improvement culture. Meaning the objectives and KPIs are the things of PowerPoint slides, seen three or four times before being relegated to the corner of a computer hard drive.
  • Or, they have processes in place aimed at capturing and sharing learnings between teams and departments, but lack the culture to enable these processes to be leveraged. This results in people who reframe results to meet their needs. Hiding failure to protect their self-esteem.

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How can we embrace failure to fuel success in marketing?

Throughout all levels of marketing, a culture of fostering success through embracing failure needs to be developed. A culture that takes the best of the R&D ethos. A culture built on the understanding that in order to differentiate from the competition, to push the boundaries in your industry or simply to take the first steps beyond whatever is your organisational ‘comfort zone’, you will be on shaky ground. You will test assumptions. You will, and must, run marketing experiments. You will try some approaches that just don’t work. You will strive to quickly learn ‘why’ something doesn’t work and ensure that you can do better in future. Failure is the ‘secret sauce’ to success.