One Trial Learner Failure Isn’t an Option

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Great CEOs accept that in order to innovate, then failure isn’t an option – it’s required and part of a healthy learning process. However, they make sure they are a “One Trial Learner.”

If you hang out with CEOs all the time like I do, you hear a lot of talk about some are worried about making mistakes. I’ve found that some CEOs spend a lot of time trying to avoid making them–then find themselves stuck in a loop of over-analysis.

Great CEOs, on the other hand, think very differently about mistakes. They have accepted that if they want to innovate by doing things better and more profitably, they will inevitably stumble at some point. They also make sure that they are a “One Trial Learner.”

What I mean by this is that great CEOs try a lot of different things–many of which don’t pan out. They make mistakes. But the goal is to use those errors as learning experiences that will help you avoid making those same mistakes again in the future. They are also careful to make sure that those mistakes are not below the water line–ones that can sink the business.

I remember one CEO sharing a great piece of insight with me when he said: “I will make a lot of mistakes, but my goal is to make none more than once.”

This is not only a great mantra for personal productivity, but also for organizational productivity. To be an innovative organization, you need to embrace the concept of being a One Trial Learner which means you as an organization need to be trying lots of things and making lots of mistakes along the way. The trick is to learn from the mistake and not make it again.

If you want to innovate, you need to be willing to make mistakes–only you shouldn’t be making the same one twice. It’s all about taking what you learned from the experience of making the mistake and integrating that into advancing your organizational thinking. This turns rapid failure into rapid learning.

Don’t Touch the Stove!

It’s like back when you were a kid and your mom told you not to touch the stove whenever it was on. But you did it anyway, right? But most likely, you did it only once because you learned from that mistake with a burnt finger. That’s what being a One Trial Learner is all about.

New Coke Died Quickly

The beverage giant Coca-Cola certainly acted like a One Trial Learner in the wake of its disastrous introduction of New Coke back in 1985. But with some hindsight we can understand why they made the decision to launch the new product, and ditch the “classic” version they had built the company around, because taste tests showed that consumers wanted a sweeter flavor comparable to what Coke’s rival, Pepsi, was offering.

Coke was trying to innovate and reinvent itself–which is actually a commendable strategy that too many firms don’t have the courage to undertake. Yet in this case, New Coke ended up becoming a gigantic mistake because the folks at Coke underestimated the brand loyalty they have developed among their customers for that original flavor. When they ditched that in favor of the new recipe, it quickly became a nightmare of epic proportions for the company.

But Coke quickly rebounded by bringing back the original recipe in less than three months, then called Coke Classic, and also ditched New Coke a few years later. While every business school professor out there uses this story as a lesson of what a company shouldn’t do, Coke did learn from its mistake because it has never messed with its flagship recipe ever again. They proved to be a One Trial Learner.

Ryanair Listens and Learns

Another example of a One Trial Learner in action involved the budget European airline Ryanair. The company’s business plan is all about offering a bare bones option: to keep their fares as low as possible, customers basically have to pay for just about everything, including food, beverages, and their baggage. But the airline apparently went one step too far when it talked about introducing a plan that would require customers to actually pay to use the lavatory on the plane. While it made sense on paper–that certainly would have become another profitable revenue line on each flight–it was simply too much for its customers: they basically revolted at the very notion of paying to go to the bathroom.

To their credit, Ryanair listened to their customers and ditched the pay-to-pee idea and began looking for other ways to both shave costs and make money. And they did it quickly.

Learning Culture

The final point is to build a culture that embraces smart failure and quick learning. You cannot shoot the person that dares. Rather–they should be celebrated and the organization should seek to learn from the risk they took, and create something better. The only thing people should be castigated is taking stupid risks or worse, making the same exact mistake multiple times.

The point is that if you want to build an innovative organization capable of cutting-edge breakthroughs, you need to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them – that’s what being a One Trial Learner is all about.

 

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