We have heard it a thousand times in meetings, political speeches, at conferences and corporate feel-good events: “Failure is not an option.” Rah-rah!

It’s a lie. Don’t believe a word of it. Failure is always an option. In fact, statistically speaking, it is the most likely option. (Probably more so if you have to remind people that it shouldn’t be.)

Believe me, I know a thing or two about failure: The failure to get an A+ on every test and in every class during my school years. The failure to score goal after goal for my team. The failure to break school records. The failure to convince Rachel Gray to go out with me in eleventh grade, or for that matter, the failure to get up the nerve to even ask her. The failure to completely master a generic American accent before I was 18. The failure to win first prize at competition after competition where I came in second or third. The failure to finish my first Ironman in under 12 hours. Professionally, I have spent the last 16 years dealing with failure as well, occasionally my own and others’. I deal with it on a daily basis. In fact, one could argue that dealing with failure is pretty much all we do:

My phone battery’s failure to give me 24 hours of juice, for example, or my Volkswagen Passat’s failure to keep rain out when its little drainage tubes get plugged with spontaneous generations of microscopic dust. The failure of Wall Street banks to remain solvent in 2008, and the US government’s failure to prevent things from getting so bad in the first place. BP’s failure to prevent one of the world’s most devastating ecological disasters, then its failure to both stop its catastrophic oil leak for months, then clean up its mess before it destroyed vast ecosystems. The failure of civility and citizenship several months ago, when Muslims looking to build a place of worship near Wall Street found out that not only did many Americans no longer care to see the distinction between “Muslim” and “Islamic Terrorist,” but also decided that Constitutional First Amendment rights no longer applied to foreigners and non-Christians. President Obama’s failure to sell to a hefty portion of Americans that something as basic as affordable and reliable healthcare is a better option than the completely ineffective “insurance” based model that barely-covered Americans overpaid for until now.

Failure is always an option, and it bears embracing that fact. Unless you work your ass off and get lucky, failure may even be your only option. What then? How will you react? How will you adapt? How will you bounce back?

The spray valve faucet story. (Short version.)

Note: If you don’t have time, skip ahead to the next section. No, really. This story adds very little to this post. It’s a personal story thrown in for the fans. you won’t miss anything if you skip it.

Years ago, I helped develop the world’s first effective water conserving spray valve for commercial kitchens. I was working for a faucet company whose luster had faded a bit over the years, and I had been hired to help restore it. It was clear from the start that “marketing” wasn’t the problem. The problem was this: Chinese manufacturers had copied our products so well that their imports were almost as good, and their prices were significantly better than ours. They were eroding our market share faster than a hurricane chews up a Florida sand bar.

We were faced with a choice: Lower our prices and become a commodity product, or improve our product’s value and continue to be the category’s premium product. Indecision for well over a decade had left the company somewhere in a falsely safe middle. We decided to go with the latter option: Improve value. First, the company created a commodity line of products to compete against the cheap imports and create a clear separation between commodity (throw-away) products and the high-end stuff that would last the life of the restaurant. Then we set our attention on the “premium” products themselves. How could we further distance their quality and performance from the cheap stuff? Almost overnight, I went from being a marketing guy to a weird blend of product designer, field anthropologist, and community listening post.

I went out to restaurant kitchens and watched how dish-rinsing spray valve were being used. I watched how they were being abused. I watched how they were being installed and repaired. I analyzed how spray valves were being specified, how they were being bought, and how resellers made money on their replacement parts. I observed. I listened. I asked questions. I took notes. I learned. Soon enough, the company’s design engineers and I started working on ideas. The project took on epic proportions. We were going to completely re-invent the category from the ground up. And over the course of a year, we that is precisely what we did.

The first thing we did was reduce the flow of water to about 1/3 of what it used to be while actually increasing rinsing performance. The impact of this particular focus for a restaurant was that they would save a significant amount of water and electricity (that water had to be heated), which meant considerable savings in utility costs over time. In fact, the valve paid for itself in under a month just in utility costs alone. (We did cost analysis studies and planned to use them in our marketing, the numbers were so good.) The impact of this feature on a larger scale was what made me truly proud: Millions of gallons of water could be saved every day in California alone. A significant amount of the energy demand of that state would also be impacted, either lowering pollution or freeing that energy to be used elsewhere on the grid (hello Nevada).

Multiply the water conservation and energy conservation impact of this product by introducing it across the United States, and it could have resulted in a pretty incredible story of how industrial ingenuity not only made restaurants kitchens more efficient and turned a fading brand back into an industry leader, but actually helped preserve the environment as well.

This wasn’t entirely an environmentally motivated project. Around that time, California had enacted strict water conservation standards for such spray valves, and the federal government was moving towards requiring these standards across all 50 states. At the time, none of our competitors had a spray valve that actually worked in water conservation mode: Sure, they could meet the flow restriction requirements, but they took 3x longer to rinse a plate than before. (Kind of like new toilets that don’t quite… you know… work the first time.) We were the only ones with a functioning low-flow spray valve that truly worked. In fact, it worked better than the normal flow sprays.

Imagine being the company in your industry that has the best product on the market. The one that cracked the code first, a full year ahead of everyone else: The battery manufacturer with the first 48-hour smart phone battery. The car company with the first $15,000 family vehicle capable of going 1,200 miles at 65mph on a single charge. That’s what we had with this spray valve.

As a bonus, we made it completely anti-bacterial. We equipped it with a built-in back-flow preventer (to stop dirty water from getting sucked into the pipes). We made it mostly out of recyclable materials. It didn’t conduct heat like its predecessors, which meant no more burns for its operators. It didn’t crack or break on impact – you could drive over it with a truck, and it simply popped back into shape. Because it was made mostly of soft materials, it could not dent pots or crack dishes. It was ergonomic and pretty fly looking. It was so cool looking that it legitimately opened up high-end residential kitchen markets to the company for the first time. And here’s the kicker: It was cheaper to manufacture than the original. This meant two things: a) The company would save money every time they manufactured this product instead of its current one, and b) those manufacturing jobs would get to stay in the US where they belonged.

So let’s recap: We built the fastest, strongest, most ergonomic, coolest looking spray valve in the world. We built into it every functional feature our market asked for. We created for it accessories and repair kits that brought all of our distributors and retailers onboard. We made it so easy to install and work on that every plumber and spec engineer we talked to in the US was enthusiastic about it. It worked better than anything on the market, was cheaper to manufacture than our existing one, exceeded government requirements, and was already creating quite a buzz months before we introduced it to the world. Its impact on the environment alone would have earned it story after story, perhaps even a few honorable mentions in product design reviews here and there. Oh, and the patents were solid, meaning the product would be difficult to copy or emulate by our pesky competitors.

We had a win on our hands. I was psyched. We tested the things for over 8 months, and they were holding up the way we thought they would.

But the product never went to market. At the eleventh hour, after almost two years of work, just weeks from beginning production, the company’s CEO decided to kill the project. We never knew why. “I just don’t like it,” was the only answer he gave us. He said it felt flimsy to him. He wanted it made out of brass. He wanted it to be heavy and strong. What we had built just wasn’t what his company was known for. In spite of all of our research, all of our testing, all of the evidence to the contrary that we had painstakingly accumulated, he didn’t think the market would go for it. He got cold feet. He killed the project.

It was one of those times when I genuinely thought I was on candid camera.

We had the holy grail of our industry: The self-sealing undersea oil pipe. The Eurostar rail system that operates in the snow. The self-correcting accelerator in a Toyota. The variable seating device that doesn’t prompt Southwest Airlines to boot Kevin Smith off one of their planes. That’s what we had, and still we failed. I failed. Because I assumed that basic common sense would prevail. I assumed that the CEO of a company, given a sure win of epic proportions, a carefully engineered once-in-a-lifetime chance to not only regain its place in the market but capture significant parts of it that it had never held, would seize on that moment and run with it. I assumed that objections like this might have surfaced earlier in the process.

What I failed to anticipate was that logic, reason, business sense and even a hint of the entrepreneurial spirit might not always prevail in the face of an unknown quantity.

If this story makes no sense to you, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. It took me years to come to terms with it. My design engineers quit the company almost immediately after the project was tabled. They were furious that their work – truly the chef d’oeuvre of their careers, a slam dunk – could be so easily cast aside against all logic and good sense. Me, I wasn’t furious. I was devastated. Crushed. Obliterated.

Imagine Steve Jobs canning iPod a month before going into mass production claiming that “Apple makes computers, not media players.” Imagine Starbucks’ CEO deciding not to expand, claiming that “takeaway coffee cheapens the coffee drinkers’ experience.” I had just handed Pfizer the cure for cancer, and they had tossed it away saying “we’re in the erection business, not the cancer-curing business.” It was madness. I couldn’t fathom it. To this day, I shake my head every time I think about it.

I held on for a few more months, my brilliant design team gone, my other product improvement projects (equally ambitious) surely destined for the same fate, and slipped into a very well concealed state of depression. Though I resented the CEO for his bizarre decision, I didn’t blame him. Somewhere inside, I knew that the fault was my own: I had failed to spot clear signs that he might feel threatened by the project’s success, that change on the whole made him uncomfortable, that he perhaps cared more about the aura of success within his familiar, comfortable world than driving major market shifts and exploring dangerous new horizons. More than anything, I had failed to recognize that the job I had been hired to do was someone else’s idea of where the company should go, not his. I should have seen the signs. In hindsight, they were obvious. I should have turned down the job to begin with. Failure was always the option. The only option. Why? Because a strong aversion to change had been engineered into the company culture for decades. In spite of all the “failure is not an option” rhetoric that made its way into quarterly meetings, it was, in fact the most likely option of all. In my youthful exuberance and eagerness to accomplish the impossible, I thought I could fix it, but I couldn’t.

I failed.

Failure isn’t what you think.

“The country is full of good coaches. What it takes to win is a bunch of interested players.”
-Don Coryell, ex-San Diego Chargers Coach

When I watch Lindsey Lohan’s battle with drug abuse and the legal system, I don’t see a troubled Hollywood starlet. I see a human being with the same degree of dysfunction in her life (albeit expressed differently) that I see in some business professionals: Though hers is focused on partying and substance abuse, then amplified by the media, it is really not that different from the mechanism that causes millions of people outside of Hollywood to fail on a daily basis as well.

I could tell you that fear is at the root of failure. The fear of failure itself, the fear of being laughed at, the fear of being fired, the fear of being punished, the fear of not making VP, the fear of not being the smartest guy in the room, the fear of being alone… Fear is an easy culprit, and I can make a solid case against it in the court of personal opinion. But fear is only part of the problem. There is another culprit at work here, and its name is denial.

Not wanting to admit that you are wrong, not wanting to admit that your company’s 2% YoY growth is the embodiment of mediocrity, not questioning the validity of the curious metrics that your agency gauge success with even though you that little voice in your head tells you that you should, not admitting that the economy isn’t the real reason why business is bad this year, sticking to the same marketing tactics year after year even if they hardly yield any results: This is denial, and denial, while perhaps not the progenitor of failure, is at the very least its cradle.

Failure also isn’t just an option; it is a choice. It lives in the decision to do nothing, in the decision to wait and see, in the decision to repeat the same mistake over and over again because that is easier than making a change, and in the decision to lie down rather than fight for victory at all cost.

“Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.”
-Lou Brock

Failure is always an option. Ask every losing team coming out of the World Cup, the Superbowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup how much of an option it turned out to be. Ask every tennis player but two as they come out of Wimbledon or Roland Garros. Stand at the finish line of the Tour de France in Paris every year, and ask every rider there but one, whether or not failure was indeed an option. Ask the Xi-Xia when Genghis Khan showed up at their doorstep. Ask the German war machine in 1945. Ask Enron, Circuit City and Blockbuster. Ask BP. Ask the brands still struggling to understand how to incorporate social media into their activities, who in spite of enormous budgets spent with agencies and consultants in the last year, are still no closer to seeing any concrete results.

There is a point where someone like Lindsay Lohan has to stop, look in the mirror, say “this is stupid,” and go where Robert Downey Junior went with his life and career: Stop making excuses for yourself, stop living in denial, stop paying lip service to ridiculous rhetoric and clichés like “failure is not an option,” and stop playing at finding solutions. Instead look reality in the eye every morning, stop playing games, get yourself ready for battle, and fight for every inch of win, especially on days when you don’t feel like it.

Why do you think most people don’t make it in their careers? Is it for lack of talent? Is it for lack of opportunity? No. It is for lack of endurance in fighting failure. Sooner or later, they give up. They settle. They stop fighting.

“Besides pride, loyalty, discipline, heart, and mind, confidence is the key to all the locks.”
-Joe Paterno

Success, just like failure, is a choice we make daily, at every moment: Should I lie down and die today, or should I make a stand and fight? Should I crack open that bottle of gin, or go for a run and stick to water instead? Should I work on my 3-point shot another hour, or go hang out with my friends because that would be more fun? Should I spend my day trying to figure out how to make this program kick ass, or should I just let my staff find random social media metrics to report on to buy us an extra couple of months? Should I write about the truth today, or feed my readers 5 carefully crafted paragraphs of easily digestible, SEO-friendly bullshit? Should I give the appearance of winning today instead of working on winning for real in five years?

Here’s the reality of failure: It is the result of taking the easy way out, of cutting corners, of living in denial. Failure is the story born out of excuses. Humans are naturally flawed, weak, petty and lazy. If we weren’t, “discipline” wouldn’t need to be a virtue. The odds are stacked against us: Out of tens of thousands of hopefuls, only a few actors ever become movie stars. Out of hundreds of thousands of managers in corporate jobs, only a few ever become CEOs. Out of millions of young athletes, only a few ever get to win Olympic gold, Superbowl rings, or whatever prize is their sport of choice’s holy grail. Failure is always, always, always the default option. It is what happens of you don’t study, if you don’t run the ball, if you don’t take out that bunker, if you don’t make sure that your methodology is sound. It is what happens when you settle for the comfort of false security.

Failure is all around us. It is a virus we are all infected with. It eats at us a little every day until eventually, it kills us: Your health can fail you, your courage, your will, your spirit, your liver and eventually your heart. All things end in failure, and failure ends all things: No winning streak can last forever. The dinosaurs had their time. So did the steam engine, the telegraph and the cassette tape. Someday, long after humanity has moved on, even our sun will fail. Wait long enough, and failure is mathematically inevitable. But you can win for a time – Not only win, but win with style and panache. If you want to. If you care to. If you are willing to work for it and fight against your own flawed nature.

By recognizing this, by accepting the nature of failure, embracing it even, you can give yourself a gift: That “this is stupid” moment of clarity I mentioned above. That moment when you decide to stop living in denial, pretending that your life, your career, your project, your campaign, your company are doing just fine. That moment when your social media director’s latest diversionary metrics and subsequent daily dose of spin stop making sense. That moment when you realize that your agency hasn’t been selling you “social” at all – that instead, they have been selling you the same marketing campaigns that weren’t working ten years ago, only repackaged to include Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. That moment when you might even realize that you would much rather be playing golf all day than playing at being the CEO of the company daddy built.

Once you realize that failure is the most likely option of the course you are currently on, you can start to look for ways of avoiding it. You can start to look for an edge, for a way to beat the odds, for a way to actually engineer success. Not mediocrity dressed up as success, mind you. Not another brilliant version of “the emperor’s new clothes” to add to your portfolio. Not spin. A real win, with real metrics to back it up, not just the convenient ones. Real metrics like the fastest time at the finish, the most touchdowns, the most ground covered, the most products sold, the highest revenue increase in the history of the company, the highest jumps in customer loyalty, customer satisfaction (even love) and word-of-mouth recommendations. The kind of win supported by actual business performance rather than your PR department.

If your goal should be 20% YoY growth and your company is crawling along at 2%, guess what: That positive arc in your trending is still failure, no matter how it looks come review time. Your competitor beating you on price is actually your company losing on value. Price has nothing to do with it. The guy who sold you on the notion that changing your logo would refresh your “brand” should have instead suggested you refresh your relationship with customers. (Gap, I am talking to you.) The reason why you only got a 3% raise this past year while your insurance premiums went up 30% wasn’t because the economy is bad, no matter what you tell yourself and no matter how much you want to believe your boss.

The truth is that failure lives in the little lies we tell ourselves to feel better. It lives in every little compromise we make in the face of what we know is the right path. It lives in every choice to promote a sycophantic weasel rather than a true champion.  Simply put: A man who cannot face the truth of his condition cannot but fail. By association, a company whose leaders cannot face the truth of their condition cannot succeed either.

Failure and the Social Media tsunami of incompetence.

If you have ever wondered why I put so much emphasis on measurement, it is because properly measuring performance is the cure for bullshit. It’s that simple: As a triathlete, I can’t cheat the clock. As a military officer, I couldn’t cheat my unit’s  tactical situation. As a business manager, I can’t cheat my P&L. Well… not without cheating. Without lying. Without putting a spin on failure and making it sound like success. What Enron did with its books, many Social Media “professionals” are doing with their reporting, and no one seems particularly eager to call them out on it. Unfortunately, denial and lies hold us back. All of us. They hurt and weaken us as a community, as an economy, as a culture, even as a species. They too easily creep into our daily diet. They too quickly become the norm, and sooner or later, the house of cards collapses. The bubble bursts. And those who trusted in the promise of success are the ones left holding the bag.

When it is easier to be in denial than to face the truth, to spin failure into success, and when we collectively turn bullshit into an industry norm, we all pay the price. All of us.

How much money is being spent on social media integration and “strategy” right now?  How many social media “experts” advise companies today? How many big name agencies, marketing firms and consulting groups are billing major brands for their expertise?

Yet with so much “knowledge” and “insight” and “expertise,” how many major brands “do” Social well? A month ago, McDonald’s Social Media director confused foot traffic with Foursquare check-ins. Last week, I heard a member of Pepsi’s Social Media team claim to have seen significant lift in sales revenue from Social Media, yet strangely refused to provide proof. Earlier this year, global giant BP allowed its social media presence on Twitter to be usurped during its most public PR crisis ever, and Nestle discovered that its Social Media team was completely unprepared to respond when Greenpeace flooded its Facebook wall with a carefully orchestrated anti palm oil campaign. Ask Skittles where its social media “strategy” went. Closer to home, Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) continues to operate a Facebook page and Twitter account while completely ignoring what is actually going on around their own brand in these same channels. See for yourselves:

Screenshot of ignored customer complaints
Screenshot of the painfully empty "information" page

Screenshot of Wachovia’s unmanaged discussion topics
Screenshot of actual comments about Wachovia
Screenshot of responses only to selected (positive) comments

Yet, in spite of the fact that the bank seems woefully unaware of the questionable management of its accounts, the bank shows up in a Mashable article titled “40 of the best twitter brands,” in which Wachovia (among other painfully horrendous social media programs mixed in with a few good ones) is featured as an example of success. Sorry, but the above screenshots (not a month old) tell a different story: Selective responses on Twitter that seem to favor positive comments while ignoring negative ones (rather than treating them as customer service opportunities), a Facebook page devoid of information like… oh, I don’t know… a company description, an address for the headquarters, some phone numbers, a website url maybe? A wall filled with angry customer comments yet no responses, a discussion page endowed with “Why Wachovia screws customers in the butt” as its most popular topic of conversation…

Forget understanding how to tie social media activity to business objectives or measure success properly… Some social media directors evidently can’t even figure out how to respond to customers on the world’s most simple social media platforms, or possibly even go as far as to give visibility to real online conversation topics to upper management. Yet, somehow, abject failures like this (not to pick on Wachovia – it is far from alone when it comes to this sort of pitiful mismanagement) are still what pass for success in this space.

Starbucks, Ford, Best Buy, Zappos, Virgin Airlines, and less than a dozen more: That is the tally of companies that didn’t settle for repackaged marketing campaign tactics, imaginary metrics, Wachovia-like account management fog, and outright spin. This is the painfully narrow minority of large businesses actually trying to figure it out with an eye towards success rather than… make-believe and unapologetic incompetence.

“Failure is not an option.” Really? Look around.

But what breaks my heart is the extent to which I have failed and continue to fail still: In spite of all my blog posts, my tweets, my appearances at conferences and other events, my interviews, my contribution to reports and articles, my presentations and even my upcoming book on how to actually develop, integrate, manage and measure social media programs (out in Q1 of 2011), I am not reaching enough companies nor reaching the ones I do reach fast enough.  I am not reaching enough executives, CMOs and CEOs. Heck, I am not reaching enough agencies and marketing firms and consultancies either. My impact is piecemeal at best, and that simply isn’t good enough.

Will I fail again? I sure as hell hope not, but I have to be honest with you… It isn’t looking good yet. Let’s wait and see what happens next. I might have to up my game considerably in 2011.

*          *          *

Afterthought:

This brilliant note from John Heaney (pulled from today’s comments) –

Olivier,

As an enthusiastic and energetic product manager, you simply discovered the corporate truism that culture trumps strategy. Every time. Apple could turn over their precise product plans for their next 4 transformative products to Dell and I could guarantee that those products would not emerge successfully from Dell’s clumsy and inept design and development process. Dell, like virtually every large tech company, simply doesn’t have the corporate culture that pursues magic and celebrates delightful failure.

To a large degree, I think the restrictive corporate cultures are ego driven. Executives strive for control, and the design and innovation process – when done well – borders on anarchy. And if the resulting product incorporates materials they don’t understand, science they’ve never grasped and aesthetics that challenge their assumptions then their ego is threatened and innovation is stifled.


And I believe that’s why we see so many mindless product extensions (mini M&M’s? really? the originals were too big?) instead of revolutionary new products.

Free the culture and you free the unlimited potential and imagination of every creative mind.