How an experimenter mindset helps to overcome failure

Failure happens.  

Most people that have experienced great success didn’t get there through an unbroken string of small successes.  Instead, most went through a period of frequent failure.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Walt Disney and Stephen Spielberg are examples of highly successful people that failed before they succeeded.

I would go even further and say that great things can only happen when people embrace failure.  That’s because to do something amazing, people need to think differently.  The new approach then has a chance to lead to a different outcome, a solution that others have not thought about.  

Unfortunately, our success does not rely on our efforts alone.  We also need other people to contribute, either as customers, co-workers or facilitators.  When other people hinder our progress, it’s because they either don’t see the genius in our work or because they have their own agenda.   

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times.  She even received the advice not to quit her day job.  Walt Disney was told he lacked imagination.  And Elvis was told his performance was terrible and that he should stick to driving trucks.

These are just a few rejections we know about because they happened to famous people.  But every single person receives setbacks and negative feedback at some point in their lives.
Resilient individuals will carry on regardless.  

In fact, how people deal with setbacks and criticism has a major effect on the overall success of their work.  If you are just starting up, it is worth looking at failure at the beginning of your journey rather than when you are in the middle of a difficult period.  This will allow you to take an objective view of the problem and help your decision making.  

In general, there are three ways in which people experience failure.


1. Failure is shameful and must be avoided at all costs

Failure in the dictionary is described as “lack of success”.  So it is obvious that to achieve success you must avoid failure.  Right?

Maybe not.  If you have learnt to ride a bike, you know that falling off was part of the learning process.  Strangely when it comes to business, we don’t think that failure is a necessary part of learning and we become fearful.  Falling off a bike is one thing, failing while getting your business off the ground is different.

The fear of failure can be debilitating. It can stop you from achieving success.


Jack Canfield, the author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” famously said “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”. 

Sometimes we know that the right thing to do is to accept failure, but still, a mysterious force is holding us back from jumping into the deep end.

The fear of failure is real and can lead to complete paralysis.  

I have experienced it first-hand.   Rather than fully engaging in my business, I started to overanalyse.  I convinced myself that if I thought about a problem long enough, I could rationally deduce the right solution.  But I found it is impossible to think yourself to success.

For years I was struggling (I still am) with writing engaging blog posts.  I knew how important writing was to connect with my target audience.  So I read many books on the subject and hundreds of blog posts giving practical writing tips.  But instead of starting to write, I found every new piece of advice I consumed added to my anxiety.

I was finally able to pull myself out of my unhelpful procrastination when I realised that no amount of theory would ever turn me into a good writer.  To break my bad habits, I set myself a goal to write every single day.

The result was that I created tangible material with many starting points for improvement.  Every single “first draft” I wrote was appalling.  It still is.  But where once I only had thoughts, I now have a physical copy, something I can reorganise, research in more depth and rewrite.   
Becoming a better writer and clearer orator of my ideas is just one part of improving my business.

To create a successful business, you need to figure out many things.  The temptation is always there to think instead of do.  But pre-emptive thinking, like market research, for example, has its limits.   The past is a poor predictor of the future.  Sometimes we just need to get started and see what happens as a result.

In business and in life testing always trumps thinking.  

You must accept that you cannot think yourself to success. And that every trial contains the possibility of failure.  The failure of a test is not shameful.  It is not personal.  Some trials simply fail.



2. Success is inevitable because I have failed lots

Despite what I just said about failure being part of life and that failure must be accepted, there is a balance that needs to be struck.

Failure is a better than procrastination.  But when people start equating failure with success, something has gone a bit awry.  Failure is not equal to success.  And a long line of small failures does not automatically guarantee success.

When people no longer make their best effort, because they think failure is as good as success, they are setting themselves up for the fall.

It is true that you cannot foresee every outcome.  But that should not stop you from preparing first and then trying your best.

Some entrepreneurs take stupid risks in their business by avoiding any forethought and preparation.  It’s like Christopher McCandless going “Into the Wild” without sufficient preparation or fall back.  He died as a result.

In business, you must first prepare and then recognise when it is time for testing your idea.  The tests need to be done.  You need concrete answers beyond theoretical reasoning.
And then experiment; don’t just press random buttons to see what happens.


3. Failure happens – it's an opportunity to learn and improve

The best approach you can take as an entrepreneur is to adopt an experimenter mindset that allows you to look at what is happening in a structured way.  

There is plenty of talk about the experimenter mindset in the entrepreneur community by many thinkers.  Many are talking from a theoretical perspective whereas I feel I can share with you some real life experience.

I worked in chemistry research for 10 years and carried out thousands of experiments in that time.  So here is what a usual experiment looked like for me.

On a typical day, I might want to do a reaction A + B  ------> C, which looks plausible on paper.  
The possible outcomes for the reaction are:

  1. You get what you want - in this case C
  2. The reaction fails, but you get a result that explains what has gone wrong
  3. The reaction fails, but you get something else, maybe compound D  - that’s interesting
  4. You get a pile of black tar containing the whole alphabet – total failure

Many business experts seem to only consider the first two possibilities as likely outcomes.   They claim that in experiments you get either what you want or you get valuable feedback.
From my many failed experiments (in the lab and in business) I can categorically say failure does not always result in valuable feedback.  When it does, you should appreciate it.

Another outcome which articles often overemphasise is that you stumble across something remarkable (outcome 3 in my example above).  And amazing things do occasionally get discovered through chance.  

Alexander Fleming famously discovered Penicillin when he left a petri dish uncovered and the bacteria were contaminated with mould from an open window.   Viagra was discovered when men on a trial for a heart drug reported curious side effects.  And Teflon was invented when an experiment for a new refrigerator coolant went wrong.

But these serendipitous discoveries are not the norm.  Searching for them should not be the reason for conducting trials in the first place.

Of course, none of these and other great discoveries would have been made if people hadn’t been experimenting.  But many entrepreneurs seem to set out to find the one in a million chance events.  When what they should be looking for is the small pieces of information that lead them in the right direction.

The fourth outcome in the example above, the complete failure is worth exploring in more detail.  


Fail fast, fail often

Conducting experiments in business is essential.  But that’s not all. Once you have performed your test, what matters, are the improvements you will make.


In business, especially for a startup testing should happen every day.  Every interaction with the customer is a test.  Did the article I wrote lead to questions or comments?  Did the picture I posted on Facebook gain shares and likes?  Does a speedier delivery lead to more positive reviews?  What features does our customer need now or in the future?   

These are typical questions you should ask and that you can experiment with.
So how often should you fail?

In the lab when a reaction fails, the scientist has to do more than just try the next reaction.  To develop a deeper understanding of the failed reaction and how to improve it, the scientist has to carry out a series of experiments. 

The series consists of reactions which in essence are identical, but one feature gets changed.  The change could be the solvent, the temperature, the concentration, the catalyst, the pH or the time you allow for the reaction to take place.  If you change many things at once you end up with a jumble of data you cannot decipher.  If you only change one thing you can be certain that the outcome results from the change.

An analogy in business would be an advert on Facebook.  If you want to optimise the advert, you can vary the picture, the headline, the message, the audience and the location of the advert.  If you only change one item in each experiment, you can easily pinpoint what leads to good results.  If you change all variables at once you may strike it lucky, but most likely you will learn little from your experiments.

If you have the feeling that your business data is overwhelming and not insightful, it might be that your experimentation was uncontrolled leaving you with a jumble of unconnected data. 
Good data helps you make good decisions.

When you have good data to make better decisions, then the fail fast, fail often advice works well.  The more cycles (consisting of design-build-test-fail-improve) you can fit into the same time frame the faster progress you will make.

Beware though of the fallacy that every failure gives you useful information.  If you are testing like crazy but the results are incomprehensible, you are wasting your time.  
When you are starting, you might be tempted to jump from one test to the next without enough thought.  A typical solution when you are uncertain is to copy what works for the competition, forgetting that each of their tactics is part of a bigger strategy.

When I started, I found myself dabbling on many social media platforms.  I used many supposed shortcuts and automation systems to interact with as many potential customers as possible.  Most attempts worked a bit, but the outcome was unrewarding considering the time and effort I had put in.  

Eventually, I realised that it takes time to learn the intricacies of each platform and to get the messages right. I hadn’t put enough effort into exploring each platform.  It is so easy to spread yourself too thin as a solo-entrepreneur.

Most importantly when I was dabbling, I did not pay attention to what my goals were.   
I did not consider fully what I was trying to do.  I needed sales.  But what I needed most was to connect with my customers and to establish trust.  I did not consider that you cannot gain trust from single unconnected interactions.  It can only be gained through consistently connecting, which takes time.

Chemists don’t carry out random reactions.   They compose on paper a synthesis route that leads to the wanted outcome.  For your business, you need an action plan that allows time to explore each chosen route before moving on to the next.

The failure to think about goals and to create an action plan to achieve the goals can eventually lead to complete failure of the business.  

When everything fails

When you are starting up, you have to decide at which point you consider your experiments to have failed.  It is better to admit failure early and move on to the next idea that has potential instead of continuing to flog a dead horse.  

But beware of failing before you have exhausted all possibilities.

Here is a list of companies that admitted defeat too early. 

  • AltaVista could not figure out how to make money out of people searching the Internet and was surpassed by Google.
  • Webvans was a forerunner of Ocado, offering online grocery deliveries without owning shops.
  • Kodak invented the digital camera.  Shame they never took the time to experiment to discover its true potential.
  • Napster decided to give music away for free.  If only they had experimented with a small fee, they could be the Spotify of today.  

The above companies are all examples of enormous missed opportunities.  

In startups today the opportunities lie at the intersection of customer insight and products.  That’s where real innovation happens.  It doesn’t happen in a lab.   You need to see things in context.  The best way of avoiding failing too soon is to measure consistently.

Measurements of failure and success

A good experimenter decides before carrying out the experiment what a positive or negative outcome will look like.  This allows objectivity.

It also helps to not have the outcome you are measuring too far in the future. It is better to think of mini-goals you can measure today.

Chemists don’t carry out 100 experiments and then see if they succeeded.  They write their lab book for every single experiment because we would forget the detail.  The solution is always in the detail, so we mustn’t skip over that.  Think of ways to record your successes and failures to keep your brain uncluttered and free for more thinking.

Once you have collated a set of measurements, think about how to turn it into meaning.
We often write our results as graphs because that is how we see trends.  Individual measurements can be meaningless, but taken together we can see if we are moving closer towards our goal.  Or if it time to call off the experiment because we can see the trend is in the wrong direction.


Post-mortem: What has actually failed?


Failing during everyday tasks seems acceptable for an entrepreneur.  But what if your idea never takes off?  What if the failure is permanent?

The most worthwhile question to ask is always “what actually failed?”  Was it your idea, did you fail to reach your customer, did you misunderstand what your customers’ problems were?  

Try not to blame yourself.  If you want to learn from your experiences and start again more intelligently, you must be as objective as possible.

An example of an excellent objective review system is the aviation industry’s black box system, which allows unbiased analysis of failures after a catastrophic event.   The amazing safety profile of the entire industry results from the black box system.  

No failure needs to be the end.  Richard Branson explored many opportunities under the Virgin brand.  Most of them failed: cola, underwear, wines, vodka, and cosmetics.  Only a few of the 400 companies started under the Virgin name continue to thrive. 

But if Richard Branson can teach us anything, it's that you can make a lot of money and have fun doing it.  Despite the failures.