The Importance of Smart Failing | Leading The Product

Sep 20, 2019 · 6 min read

In today’s digital product environment, failing fast is not enough. You also need to fail strategically so you can minimise your losses and maximise your returns. SEEK’s Chief Product Officer, Nicole Brolan spoke about this in detail at Leading the Product 2019.

Elon Musk once said, “If things aren’t failing, you’re not innovating”

Knowing this doesn’t make the idea of failure any easier to swallow. After all, nobody really enjoys throwing serious time, money and effort on something, only to see it fail to get off the ground.

However, the only real way to avoid failure is to stick to what has already worked before. This is a terrible way of doing business because it prevents you not only from adapting to changing market needs, but from capitalising on new opportunities.

Staying in your comfort zone, especially in business, doesn’t actually help you avoid failure. It just delays it. And once it comes, it’s usually too big to recover from.

So, what should digital professionals do? Do you just resign yourself to the fact that you’ll need to keep wasting time and money on failure after failure if you want to succeed in business?

Or do you lay the right groundwork so the decisions you make and the projects you launch have a better chance of success?

To lay this groundwork, you need to make smart decisions very early in the product development process. Let’s take a look at the four villains of decision making that are at the root of a lot of failures for tech-based businesses:

Villain of decision-making #1: narrow framing

The first villain of product-based decision making is our tendency to focus so much on what we already know or are comfortable with that we miss all other possibilities. To conquer this dastardly foe, you can:

  • Figure out what you would lose if you go with any one option
  • Take whatever you currently have off the table so you’re forced to look for alternatives
  • Go with several options at the same time so you don’t get too emotionally invested in one of them
  • Learn from other people who have already solved similar problems

Villain of decision-making #2: confirmation bias

When it comes to deciding where and how to innovate, the second villain of decision making is our tendency to pick facts and solutions that confirm what we already know or want to hear. To conquer this, we need to forget everything we know for a second and figure out ways to arrive at an objective answer.

It can be as simple as changing the way you phrase your questions. For example, instead of asking “Would these clothes look good on me?”, you can say “What do you think I should wear?”.

The first question is leading. In most cases, the person answering would be uncomfortable saying what they really think. The latter allows them to be more honest.

In business, you can also:

  • Play the devil’s advocate and question everything
  • Imagine the project has already failed and work backwards to figure out what went wrong and how you can prevent it
  • Figure out what you have to believe for your product or idea to work
  • Consider the opposite of what you believe and imagine what that scenario would look like

Villain of decision-making #3: short-term emotion

Too often, we let our short-term emotions cloud our judgment. To overcome this, you can:

● Ask yourself what your successor would do so you’re forced to think with a more long-term perspective
● Put some distance between you and your decision so it’s easier to see the big picture
● Use the 10/10/10 approach where you picture how you would feel about your decision 10 minutes, 10 days, and 10 months from now

Villain of decision-making #4: overconfidence

The last villain is our tendency to be so sure that we are correct. To vanquish it, you can:

● Consider a range of options (from good to terrible)
● Do pre-mortems where you imagine you already failed and pre-parades where you imagine you already succeeded

Doing so puts everything in perspective and forces you to think more realistically.

Now we have the four villains of decision making out of the way, it’s time to take a smarter approach to discovering solutions.

Enter: the opportunity solution tree

How much better off would your business be if you could innovate more rapidly without having to fail as much-and if even when you did fail, it only took a small amount of time and money?

This is what the Opportunity Solution Tree (OST) allows you to do.

Developed by Product industry thought leader Teresa Torres, the OST gives you the power to know what your customers truly want, to figure out the best way (or ways) to give it to them, and to test everything before rolling anything out. It can be used across organisations.

Implementing the opportunity solution tree

Failing smart boils down to four steps:

Step 1: Define a desired business outcome

What is it exactly that you want to accomplish?

For example, do you want to help hiring managers identify suitable candidates to interview more efficiently? Do you want to help them increase their shortlist rate from X to Y?

Whatever it is, you need to clearly define the goal of your new project before moving on to the second step.

Step 2: Talk to your customers

This is not so much about surveys and focused group discussions, but about natural, human conversations where you ask your customers open-ended but concrete questions.

Let’s say you’re serving hiring managers. Instead of asking them what they think can be improved in their hiring process, ask them about the last time they interviewed applicants for a position. How did it go? What challenges did they encounter? What would they have done differently?

The goal here is to identify needs that your customers may not even be aware of. It’s important to leave your biases at the door and avoid asking leading questions. You want your customers to be as honest as possible so you can gain insights you can actually use.

Step 3: Size the customer needs and pick one

The more you talk to your customers, the more needs you discover. So, how do you pick which one to focus on?

The key is to work first on the need that not only aligns best with your desired business outcome, but which is causing your customers the most discomfort.

Step 4: Ideate and validate your assumptions through experiments

Once you zero in on a need, start coming up with ideas on how you can best address it, ideally across multiple short brainstorming sessions. Just be sure you come up with truly distinct ideas instead of variations of the same one or ones that solve completely different problems.

When that’s done, pick the standout(s) and start testing. This should help you identify potentially serious issues before you roll anything out.

Putting it all together

By conquering the villains of decision making and using the OST to solve problems, you’ll know exactly what your customers want, how new projects and products align with your business goals, and what the most promising courses of action are at your disposal at all times.

Since doing so also allows you to weed out pointless and potentially disastrous options early on, you’ll also be able to keep innovating with significantly less risk of failing. The worst that could happen is you’ll fail during testing, which is still way better (and less costly) than failing months after launch. Should testing fail, you’ll have the foundations of good decision-making and the first steps of the OST to cycle back to, without having to start from scratch.

About the author
Nicole Brolan is Chief Product Officer at SEEK having worked her way through Service, Sales and Product. Nicole is always passionate about solving customer problems in a meaningful way. She is constantly focused on how to build amazing teams that consistently challenge and evolve product practices for better outcomes. Outside of work, Nicole was previously a competitive Muay Thai fighter, having won four Australian titles throughout her career, and continues training. She also has a black belt in Kyokushin Karate.

A version of this article was first published on the Leading the Product Conference blog.

SEEK blog

At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…


Written by


Digital Content Manager at SEEK — editing everything in perpetuum

SEEK blog

SEEK blog

At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade