Experiment to Innovate: Cultivating a “Fail Smart, Learn Fast” Culture
The rate of advancement in technology and the speed of market change can mean our business processes are often catapulted into uncharted territories which necessitate an experimental approach to marketing. Deirdre Coleman reports on the merits of “failing smart” to learn fast.
The adage “Fail fast, fail cheap, fail often” is by no means a new concept and has been utilized in start-ups and software development for years. It means the practice of conducting quick, cheap experiments to gain invaluable insights to hypotheses in order to rethink, close the loop and ultimately “pivot” or change course based on integrating the new lessons into the model.
However, not all failure is created equal and the “fail fast” mantra can be dangerous if not failing fast the right way. Firstly, let’s look at the merits of “fail fast” or controlled experimentation as it applies to marketing and what value it creates within an organization.
The Merits of “Fail Fast”
Experimentation steers us to our eventual destination through roadblocks, twists and turns. Trying new things, being open to new programs, new tactics and technological innovations is critical to moving forward in terms of innovative marketing approaches. “Fail fast” does not imply lack of commitment to a mission or goal, but on the contrary, indicates a willingness to experiment in the process, learn quickly from the results, and make adjustments to better achieve an enhanced customer experience. It does not downplay the value of a well thought-out plan, but rather facilitates continuous quality improvement.
According to Dave Moore, Chief Business Officer, Ocera Therapeutics, the merits of “fail fast” are multifold: “For me the ethos of “fail fast” is an openness to try new things and not be afraid to experiment and fail. Every time you try new initiatives, you’re one step further from the safe, traditional approaches that have gone on before and potentially closer to better customer engagement. Previously, the prohibitive cost of marketing stifled and hampered experimentation and innovation. Now, with digital marketing, it’s inexpensive to experiment, try out different tactics and get the results in real time, which lends itself better to this “fail fast” approach. Now you can test, apply metrics, tweak, measure again and modify to optimize your engagement, incorporating continuous improvements. Learning happens faster as the cost associated with experimentation is less, you can quickly learn what’s working and scale it and equally what’s not working and kill it, or apply learnings and modify it so that it can work in the future. We can get to a higher level of engagement with our customers through trial and error and applying learnings going forward. We can also share these learnings and experiences across brands so we don’t all have to trial the same things. Another key merit of the “failing fast” approach is that you get buy-in on the project at a very early stage from key members of the team across departments and this enhances commitment across the team to make a program or pilot work and creates alignment in terms of shared objectives. Experimentation is a team sport and it’s that collaboration that can open up and unlock opportunities for the future”.
The key is to be prepared to commit to it and scale it, if it works, or cut your losses early, if it doesn’t.
“Managers need to embrace the “test and learn” approach: Take one action with one group of customers, take a different action (or often no action at all) with a control group, and then compare the results. The outcomes are simple to analyze, the data are easily interpreted, and causality is usually clear. The test-and-learn approach is also remarkably powerful. Feedback from even a handful of experiments can yield immediate and dramatic improvements in meaningful customer interactions”, explains Moore.
“The key is to be prepared to commit to it and scale it, if it works, or cut your losses early, if it doesn’t. My advice is, don’t be afraid to apportion part of your budget purely to these pilot experiments. You can run focus groups and theorize whether things will work or not or over-analyze potential outcomes or you can just try it, on a limited scale, for a limited time, on a limited spend. It’s an iterative process and you get closer to the best customer experience with each campaign. The important thing and it is frequently overlooked is the role of sharing these learnings across brands to avoid replication and enhance learning. Brand teams can often function in silos and not be aware of what’s working or not working within other brands”, notes Moore.
Fostering a Learn Fast Culture
It’s not about “failing fast” – you could equally be “winning fast”. It’s about learning why did it succeed or why did it fail and applying those learnings going forward.
In an organization with a culture of decision making by intuition, shifting to an experimentation culture requires a fundamental change in management outlook. It requires a culture that fosters marketing innovation through experimentation and continuous improvement; a culture that facilitates and disseminates learnings across departments and across brand teams. It also requires a commitment in terms of resources and time to dedicate to the process of ongoing experimentation, whether that be a set percentage of marketing budget allocation or dedicating an agreed percentage of staff time to this process.
“The ultimate goal of a ‘learning fast’ approach to innovation is to embed in your culture the ability to extract the key insights from your marketing efforts and the ability to quickly recognize how to modify your project plan to take advantage of unexpected learnings, and the flexibility and empowerment to make the necessary course corrections. It’s not about “failing fast” – you could equally be “winning fast”. It’s about learning why did it succeed or why did it fail and applying those learnings going forward. It’s about increasing your experimentation to accelerate your learnings; it’s landing on what your customer finds truly valuable and finding a compelling way to communicate that value in a manner that’s most appropriate to your target audience”, clarifies Moore.
Data can tell us what, but it can’t inherently tell us why. To uncover the why, we need a very specific kind of data: data from controlled experiments. Since why is often more important than what for deciding a future course of action, experimentation can be a more powerful management tool than data analysis.
As marketers, it’s usually causation that we’re after — we want to know what we can do that will cause more customers to do more business with us. So what do we do when data shows a correlation that may reveal such a cause? We run a controlled experiment. Keep all other variables constant (as much as is practically feasible) and test the alternatives to prove or disprove our hypothesis. Google runs over 10,000 such experiments every year - it’s the most powerful data you can generate.
Data and analytics are small pieces of a bigger picture. The bigger picture: creating an organization that can confidently experiment, innovate, and adapt on a broad scale. Being truly data-driven embeds this deeply into an organization’s culture. The biggest part of embracing this revolution will be shifting your organizational structure, behavior and culture to truly leverage data to deliver exceptional customer experiences. In this, “failure” is not an option.
Dave Moore will be presenting at eyeforpharma Philadelphia. For more information on his presentation or to find out who will be in attendance, visit the official website.
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