When Is Failure The Right Option?


You must let people fail. Help them do it right.

Everyone’s big on failure these days. Failed entrepreneurs are “experienced.” Savvy digital marketing people launch hundreds of tests every year, fully expecting that most will fail. “Validated learning,” which entails plenty of failures, is an important currency in the startup world. That’s created a quandary for me: if I know I can probably stop someone from failing (i.e. I possess validated learning), is it always appropriate to step in, or are there times when you should let someone fail anyway?

I’ve been running marketing campaigns at my company for six years and have tried just about every conceivable method to acquire new customers. As we add more heads to the marketing team, people from diverse backgrounds come in with big plans to grow the business, but it’s rare that I hear suggestions that we haven’t tried before. I used to shoot people down pretty fast–“tried it, didn’t work, move on”–but lately I’ve been stopping myself, for two reasons:

  1. If you’re hiring smart people, you need to give them a long leash. If you tell them they can’t do something that they think will work, they’ll feel held back. It becomes hard for you to hold them accountable, and they’ll eventually quit.
  2. Failures don’t occur in a vacuum. They are the result of a set of inputs determined by the people involved and the circumstances at the time. MAYBE something will be different than the last time.

So how do you square all of this and help your business evolve intelligently (aka without throwing money away)? Assuming you agree with #1 above, I think the best thing to do is share your experience in a positive way and ask as many questions as you can about how circumstances may have changed and/or how your colleague would do things differently. If you’re not already keeping detailed documentation of your campaigns and experiments, start now, because as you might imagine, it’s tough to have this conversation on the basis of anecdotes and fuzzy memories. Your goal here isn’t to grill your colleague, it’s to set them up as best you can for success under the assumption that you have to let them control their own future (again, assuming you agree with #1 above). They very well may still fail, but you should never let them fail blindly, and you should never let them fail without adding to your stockpile of validated learnings.

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