When you start a business, failure is probably the last thing you want to aim for.
However, just a few days into running the business, it will immediately become clear that failure is inevitable. This poses a challenge to many business leaders, as at the end of the day, failure does not elicit positive feelings about the business, an idea, or a project. That is what success is for.
Despite this, many business leaders have come to appreciate failure, seeing it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve, rather than calling it a day and giving in at the first hurdle.
This is exactly why earlier this year, British entrepreneur Steven Bartlett chose to recruit a Head of Failure, dubbing it “one of the best hiring decisions” he ever made.
Yes, you read that right, a Head of Failure.
Mr Bartlett, Founder and CEO of a number of global companies encompassing marketing, IT services, consulting, and fitness, is celebrating three years since he launched The Diary of a CEO (DOAC) podcast together with Jack Sylvester. The pair got on the podcast train relatively late, with there already being 3.5 million other podcasts when they re-launched the show.
Undoubtedly, the business landscape has changed significantly since then, and for Mr Bartlett and Mr Sylvester, not being left behind posed a challenge.
“It’s always been my belief that when you’re building on ever-changing digital tools, platforms and technologies – which we all are in the modern world – the greatest competitive advantage you can have is a high ‘failure rate’,” Mr Bartlett said.
He explained those individuals who tend to fail the fastest, receive the most feedback, as failure in itself is a type of feedback. “Feedback is knowledge, and knowledge is power,” he continued. As a result, the failure rate of a business is essentially a team’s “speed of learning and improvement”.
“My approach to business building, content, and podcasting can be simply summarised as the following: ‘Out-fail the competition’,” he said, before stressing that hence, business need to conduct “more measured experiments”, as fast as possible.
This is his reasoning behind the need to search for a Head of Failure, an individual who is tasked with conducting measurable experiments to assess possible improvements to processes and ideas.
Mr Bartlett remarked that technological change has accelerated rapidly, with the Law of Accelerating Returns stating that during the 21st century, we are poised to experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of change.
“The teams that will win won’t be the smartest, or the hardest working, but they will be the teams that were able to keep up with this pace of change. The teams with the highest failure rate,” he said.
It is because of this way of thinking that when the podcast made the top rankings in Europe, at the point when he and Mr Sylvester were “most susceptible to complacency and risk-aversion”, he chose to recruit a full-time Data Scientist in Charles Kakou, as well as Head of Failure and Experimentation Grace Miller, focused on driving up the DOAC team’s failure rate.
“Her [Ms Miller’s] job is to make all of our teams fail more often by making sure experiments are measurable – not just changing things and calling it an experiment – to use the scientific method to turn questions into conclusions, and to thus maintain a culture where we reward failure,” Mr Bartlett explained.
Whenever a question is asked by a team member, Ms Miller works with them to turn it into a hypothesis. Afterwards, she turns it into a reliable experiment, providing clarity on the controlled and measured variables. Following that, she runs the experiment together with the team, and helps them analyse the findings to decide whether the hypothesis failed or succeeded.
“She [Ms Miller] is remarkable. I’ve never worked with someone who is so obsessed with and focused on experimentation, data and speed,” he highlighted.
He noted that Ms Miller “flies under the radar” within the team, and ever since she was appointed to the role in August, she has changed the trajectory for DOAC “in a profound way”. “She is my kind of person, someone that loves to sweat the smallest stuff,” he stated.
In her role, she reports to Mr Bartlett every week and month on the number of experiments that the team has conducted, and in doing so, she has managed to raise DOAC’s failure rate “in a dramatic way” within just a few months.
“Every team needs a Grace Miller. Every team needs a Head of Failure,” he affirmed.
Speaking about her role, Ms Miller, said that she is “incredibly grateful” to get to do it as part of DOAC, as there’s nothing she’s more passionate about.
“Supporting and encouraging failure and experimentation within teams is so important,” she stressed.
Various business leaders praised this forward-looking way of thinking, and seemed eager to find a way of implementing it into their own businesses.
So, could a Head of Failure be a way into the future for businesses?
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