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Fail better

At BlaBlaCar, one of our six BlaBlaPrinciples is “Fail. Learn. Succeed.”

Here’s a question I like to ask my fellow product managers:

When was the last time you launched a feature and failed?

Of course, there’s a variety of answers to this question with, more often than not, a good story and an opportunity to learn.

But the reason why I like this question so much is because it speaks volumes about the company’s product culture.

Two shades of failing to fail

In my experience, I have seen two categories of product managers who could make more room for failure in their jobs: the failure-averse and the failure-blind product managers.

The failure-averse product managers acknowledge failure as an enemy. In order not to fail, they often ask their users to vote for their roadmap. This way, they hope to mitigate the risk of developing something that no one needs.

There is no point denying that listening to your users is essential, but this approach is short-sighted. Your users are most probably not going to serve your greatest innovations on a plate.

Henry Ford coined it perfectly:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

On the other hand, the failure-blind product managers don’t have a habit of checking the impact of what they release. I’m not blaming anyone here. I’ll admit that I used to be such a PM before.

This way of approaching failure can stem from several reasons:

  • You believe so strongly in your vision or idea that you can’t even imagine that it might fail.
  • You lack the resources to do it properly. Being either time or technical resources, for instance.
  • You lack the discipline. Like any good habit, it comes with an entry cost.

Try again, fail again, fail better

If you are leaning on the failure-averse side, I would recommend to embrace failure as an ally instead of an enemy. If you are too afraid of failing, this job is probably not for you.

Get comfortable with failure, get comfortable with uncertainty and get ready to learn a lot.

If I have failed to convince you so far, I highly recommend Ken Norton’s article: Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable.

Now, if you are looking for a secret weapon to help you avoid being failure-blind, we happen to have one for you at BlaBlaCar.

As I confessed already, before joining BlaBlaCar in 2020, I used to work in fire-and-forget mode, jumping to the next cool feature and turning a blind eye to the outcome of the previous one.

Our secret weapon in the Product & Experience team at BlaBlaCar is what we call the Product Design Framework, or PDF.

Like any framework, it’s a playbook designed to foster common habits and increase our chances of success when we are working on a new project.

Of the 8 phases of this framework, let’s pay extra attention to the Scope and Follow phases.

  • In the Scope phase, a key step is to define success criteria. Defining success criteria is arguably the best advice I have received so far. Like any good advice, it’s insanely simple to frame, but not that easy to heed. Good success criteria can be connected to one or more OKRs. And criteria that sets your level of ambition. Are you looking for a 10% impact, a 50% impact or a 10x impact?
  • The Follow phase is where your efforts are paying off. It’s when you confront your outcomes with your success criteria, and when the learning happens. Again, it’s obvious advice to give, but how many times have you overlooked this step recently?

Still not convinced? We have one more thing for you. At BlaBlaCar we believe that impactful product managers have four key habits, we call them C4. These habits include always checking the outcome of your work, being one of the heaviest users of your product and always looking for facts rooted in reality.

If you want to learn more about our C4 framework, I encourage you to read this collection of articles from one of our Product VPs.

The last time I failed

At BlaBlaCar Daily, we strongly believe that commuter carpooling is more a matter of people than a matter of travel. To make carpooling a daily habit, you need to find your carpooling soulmate — i.e.: the one with whom you will share most of your daily commutes. So, we carved out a privileged place in the app where members can easily organise their rides with their favourite carpoolers. We were convinced that there was absolutely no way this new feature would go unnoticed.

In the past, I would have launched this feature and moved on to the next one. But thanks to our product culture, I knew better and investigated the outcomes.

The bright side was that we were partly right. As we called members who used the feature, we realised that they simply loved it.

The down side was that only half of our active members had even discovered the new feature. It was sitting right in front of them, they just never clicked.

I even called one of our most active passengers who pitched this exact feature to me, asking if it was something that we could develop. I was speechless. He hadn’t dared to click on the new CTAs. And I never dared to imagine that this feature would be so hard to discover.

Had we not checked for the impact of this feature, we would still be rooted in our own fallacy.

So, here’s my recommendation to you (it may sound obvious, but the story I just told proved to me that checking for the obvious is not a waste of time):

  • Embrace failure as an ally.
  • Define success criteria for every feature.
  • Check the outcomes once your feature is live.

In my opinion, doing this consistently will set you on track to become a better product manager.

And remember,

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

Winston Churchill



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