Give Failure Its Due: Learn from It

September 10, 2015

12:30 pm

Excerpted with permission from Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work by Whitney Johnson (Bibliomotion, 2015), which comes out October 6, 2015.

As we are faced with interim failures in our personal innovation process, the narrative we construct is key. It’s not just about learning lessons along the way. If we want an end-game success, it’s about learning the right kind of lesson. Lean Startup author Eric Ries describes this as validated learning, in which you ask: What valuable truth did you discover about your present and future prospects by failing?

Nate Quigley is an entrepreneur who had an idea for a Facebook-esque social media service, but with a twist—he created FolkStory, a shared family journal. The platform launched, and it wasn’t a hit. So the team stepped back, listened to feedback, and came up with JustFamily, a Cloud-based family photo library. This also failed to find an audience. Now in a third iteration, JustFamily has become Chatbooks, a service that lets users automatically create photo books from the moments they share in social networks and through text conversations. Quigley says:

“We blindly charged in with the certainty of being right, and then failed. We regrouped, and listened a lot more carefully the second time. But we failed again. We had to restart once more, this time 100 percent focused on talking to target users about what they very specifically wanted. We made prototypes, showed them to our target users, and iterated based on their reactions until we had a better prototype. It’s like we were the ‘what not to do’ case study of a Lean Start-up, and on our third swing, we followed the Lean instruction manual as carefully as we could, out of necessity, desperation, and related humility.”

On a personal note, when I bombed a speech, I discovered when I stood behind a podium it became a barrier that made the speech about me personally, which was nerve wracking. I learned that when I moved away from the podium, I could have a conversation with and connect to my audience. My takeaway from the failed business? Vetting prospective partners is vital, as are clear rules of engagement. “Learning is the essential unit of progress for start-ups,” says Eric Ries. Learning, I would argue, is also a basic unit of progress for dreaming and disrupting. Rather than take failure as a message that you or your ideas are bad or wrong, ask: What have I learned that I didn’t know before? How can I apply that knowledge to propel my journey up the learning curve of disruption?

About the Author

Whitney Johnson is the leading thinker on driving corporate innovation through personal disruption. She formerly co-founded Rose Park Advisors, a boutique investment firm, with Clayton Christensen, and was an Institutional Investor-ranked analyst for eight consecutive years, including at Merrill Lynch. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, was named a Future Thinker Finalist by Management Thinkers50 in 2013, co-founded Forty Women Over 40 to Watch, and was one of Fortune’s 55 Most Influential Women on Twitter in 2014. Her book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work comes out October 6, 2015. You can follow her on twitter at @johnsonwhitney.

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things. Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in 'Doctor Who', Murakami, 'The Mindy Project', and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a "writer". Tweet @RonaldPBarba.

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