Advancing Executive Development January 27, 2020

Journey to the C-Suite and Boardroom: Fail Fast, Fix Faster

By Karen Cone Former CEO, Corporate GM, & Board Director

“Fail fast, fail often” became a Silicon Valley mantra for start-ups at the height of the dot-com era. Today, as we constantly stretch the edges of the digital world and the boundaries between digital and “brick and mortar” are blurring, “fail fast” has expanded from the start-up world into established businesses. But the business leader who executes on “fail fast” and succeeds in failing is often at risk. Ken Spencer, an innovation thought leader and CEO of Spyder Works wrote an article headlined: “‘Fail fast, fail often’ may be the stupidest business mantra of all time.” Can one “fail fast” without career failure?

Along my journey to the C-Suite and the Boardroom, I survived a big “fail fast” experience and learned lessons that changed my career trajectory. Here is my story, in hopes it will help others along their own career journey…

It was at the turn of the 21st century and e-commerce, dot-com, and the Y2K “bug” were all featured in Gartner research (the leading information technology research and advisory firm.) I was head of Gartner’s technology and IT management research services; we were predicting the explosion of the internet and advising clients on the importance of the Web to their businesses. 

Despite this published advice, the majority of Gartner research was still being delivered on paper or CDs. Gartner had gone public in 1993 and experienced 9X growth by 1999 through a combination of acquisition and organic growth. As a result, to access research online, Gartner clients had to browse multiple websites from the core and acquired businesses. No search function or other needed capabilities were provided. Clients loudly complained and, as the head of most of Gartner’s research services, I was usually the target of these complaints. 

The “monkey” is on my back

At senior leadership team meetings, I frequently brought up the widening gap between our research and our Web reality, and its impact on clients and our credibility. Nothing was happening. I must have raised the issue one too many times; the CEO at the time, Michael Fleisher, asked me to meet and told me that I was now the General Manager of gartner.com and to go fix the problem. 

I was blindsided—this was not expected. (After all, I knew little to nothing about building websites.) In 2000, very few business or technology leaders had internet experience. The CEO simply told me that I did not need to be Web-savvy and to hire someone who was. He said we need an inside person leading this effort who knows our businesses and is trusted by the leaders of the disparate acquisitions, who wanted to maintain their branding and culture. 

So I took a deep breath and started pulling a team together. I brought over a highly capable Chief Technology Officer, Bob Waldman, from one of our acquisitions. We contracted Razorfish to help with design and development, then brought over Web-capable coders from another Gartner acquisition. We held multiple focus groups both with clients and non-clients who told us what they “hated” about the current gartner.com and research distribution, and shared their visions for the future of our product. This included a website that had contextual search capabilities to filter through the thousands of possibilities and returned highly relevant results. 

We set to work designing a totally unique look and feel for the new gartner.com with ground-breaking functionality. We “cherry-picked” talent from the Gartner IT team, so we had the expertise needed to interface with existing systems. We added a few top research analysts and even hired an NBC producer to take the lead on content presentation.

“Seduce, Sizzle, and Stick”

At Gartner all-company meetings, we promised a new website that would “seduce, sizzle, and stick”. Everyone loved it. I presented the approach to clients at the Gartner Symposium. When I closed my pitch with the words, “We will launch a website that gives you what you never knew you wanted but can’t live without,” I got a standing ovation. My team and I were convinced we had a winner. We were under great pressure from clients, senior management, and the board to launch. So we moved rapidly to get the lightly field-tested product to market. 

Learning the hard way

We launched a leading-edge website in January 2001. We gave our clients just what they asked for. And it bombed—badly!

Gartner website screenshotsWe quickly learned the meaning of the phrase—“give your customers what they ask for, but not too much.”

Usually, this means, “Don’t let your customers drag you down into the traditional and miss the next breakthrough innovation.” In our case, it meant our clients (customers) were not ready for the magnitude of change the new web interface introduced. We began to realize that our testing was focused on ideas rather than actual user experience. Additionally, we discovered that the excellent relevance of results did not compensate for the fact that the search engine was slow. In the Web world, response time is non-negotiable.

I had failed and done it fast! Now we needed to fix it fast! 

In the meantime, I needed to keep my job; more importantly, my team’s jobs; and most importantly, reverse the significant risk to Gartner. Fortunately, we had taken some actions prior to launch that bought us time, such as:

1. Leadership and stakeholder buy-in:

  • Demonstrating the Website in advance to Senior Leadership and the Board, getting their buy-in, and capturing some sponsorship; 
  • Providing executive stakeholders what they needed—in this case, a single source for both Gartner core research content as well as content from acquired services, while still maintaining the brands with large followings. As a result, these executives wanted to see the new gartner.com succeed.

2. Communications:

  • Keeping the company—especially the sales force, analysts, and consultants—updated on the situation and providing guidance on how to respond to clients and other external queries.
  • Sending a communication directly to clients, acknowledging their feedback, and providing assurances that we were working on it and would keep them updated—which we did.

3. Team:

  • Preparing a “Plan B” in advance, which the team was able to customize and deliver with confidence. Prior to the original launch, we were optimistic the new website was what our clients were asking for—yet we also knew that we might need to adapt quickly.
  • Always including the broad team, directors, and collaborators from other groups, so the designers, Web producers, coders, operations teams, and subject-matter-expert collaborators all felt they “owned” the new gartner.com. 

 “I can do that…”

From the start, we held all-team meetings every week. During these meetings, we would challenge the team to brainstorm solutions to our most difficult requirements, the potential showstoppers. My favorite words to hear were when someone would call out: “I can do that…” So once again, we called the team together and explained what we needed to fix. This included “dumbing down” the user interface and changing it to something much more familiar. We knew how to do this.

The most difficult challenge was to significantly reduce the response time of the search engine while keeping relevance. We needed a quick solution.  As soon as we presented the problem, conversations spread throughout the large room. The team was thinking out loud. They owned the challenge. We waited.

And then we heard the magic words, “I can do that…” And we did. We embraced our failure, learned from it, and moved on to focus on the fix. 

Three months later, in April 2001, we launched the second version of gartner.com. And it was a great success. 

Takeaways

Despite this cliff-hanging experience, I continue to take risks. In the dynamic, competitive landscape in which we operate, we need to exploit opportunities and rapidly confront threats. When taking a risk, I explore these questions: 

  • Is the potential reward worth the risk?
  • Do we understand the opportunity? Do we have a strategy and action plans (and back-ups)?
  • Do we have the right team in place and does the team have each other’s back?
  • When things go wrong, is it really time to declare failure or have we just hit the inevitable “messy middles” that one needs to work through? 
  • Are the management, team, investors, and board really open to “fail fast” or is “success only” the real mandate? 

Success (or surviving failure) involves:

  • Taking accountability for one’s decisions;
  • Keeping the team continuously engaged, listening to them even if their advice will not result in action, and providing recognition; 
  • Engaging and seeking the advice and buy-in (of those above and your peers) as well as finding sponsors. 

Taking risks includes accepting the risk of failure. The question is not if, but how one fails. This includes the takeaways raised in this story and also how one behaves. In Harvard Business Review, James W. Harris the CEO of Seneca Financial Group, wrote: “Skipping out on colleagues when things look grim is the most common failing among super-charged executives. Lying about the true condition of a business is another… Failure is no excuse to chuck ethics out the window.”

Owning my failures has been extremely hard, and yet the lessons learned have led to far more success. My greatest personal success is seeing the people who joined me in addressing these failures rise above them and move on to achieve their own success.

A wise and experienced executive told me at the start of my career: “Karen, I am confident you will be successful in your career. As you climb up the ladder, just remember to step around people, not on them. You are sure to meet them again on the way down. You may not understand this now, but you will.” 

It took some time, but I always remembered these words and did, indeed, come to understand them. I’ll share more on this in my next story. Stay tuned…