I was invited to participate in a panel at this year's SXSW Interactive Festival titled “We f*cked up. Now what? Exploring failure, together” with our pals at Happy Cog and Wil Reynolds of Seer Interactive. In preparation for this panel, I am going to...

I was invited to participate in a panel at this year's SXSW Interactive Festival titled “We f*cked up. Now what? Exploring failure, together” with our pals at Happy Cog and Wil Reynolds of Seer Interactive. In preparation for this panel, I am going to be exploring some of the concepts here, and I invite you to join the conversation.

I actually find the topic of failure fascinating. Of course, you must first define "failure". It is a knee jerk reaction to define failure as losing a project, or a client, or money. Losing something and failure seem to go hand in hand. But I can turn that around and think of things I have lost that turned out to be blessings. Losing a toxic employee, losing a potential client because we wouldn't do back flips for them, losing money on a project that goes on to win awards and bring tons of visibility (and new work) to our agency— these are all perfect examples of where losing something results in success.

Perhaps failure is best described as being in a bad situation and doing nothing about it. Putting your head in the sand and hoping it will all go away by the time you come up for air is about as big of a failure as I can imagine. So, lack of action in the face of a negative situation is failure. You can never avoid failures; in fact, you should look forward to them. But the really important part in failing is how you react to it.

I believe that no one gets better without failure. It's as necessary to success as night is to day. In fact, I think failure is more important than success. Think about it: How cemented into your memory are your really big F-ups? You will most likely never forget them. This is our human evolution working for us. It was pretty important for early humans to remember how horrible it was watching their cave buddy collapse and die after eating a certain mushroom, so they made sure they never ate it and never let anyone eat it ever again. However, celebrating a recent woolly mammoth take down over a fire with the ladies of the clan, while fun, probably didn't live on for generations to come. No, it's the stories of failure, and how they were dealt with, that stay with us in order to help us evolve. No one likes experiencing the same mistake twice.

So, what about me? When's the last time Fastspot really experienced a massive failure? Well, the last time a client used the "F" word in an email to me is probably a good place to start. What happened? We launched a site with an email blast tool built into the content management system that was programmed and then never fully tested. This client didn't have an extremely large list, so this little home grown tool should have sufficed for their early email blasting needs. The site launched, they wrote a lovely HTML email announcing their new site and a big sale, and they sent it out to about 2,000 past customers, some competitive company reps and lots of other VIPs on their list. When the email arrived in each person's inbox, before they could see the lovely message, they got to see all 1,999 other email addresses in the "To:" field. Ouch. Major failure lights and sirens are going off everywhere. Walls are crumbling. People are running. It's chaos.

How on earth did no one catch this? How did we miss that the addresses were showing? And, moments later, in comes the email from the client with the "F" word in it, followed by words including "angry" and "embarrassed". Not only had we messed up big time, but we had caused our client harm. My first reaction? Run, drive, hop a flight, skip town, head to the corner bar—just about anything to avoid having to deal with the situation. However, as I adjusted to the feeling of nausea, my rational mind started to say, "OK, Halvorsen, what can we do to make this better and then what we can we do to make sure this never happens again?"

First, we need to try to make it better. And don't get me wrong, you aren't fixing it. You are trying to make a really bad situation slightly less bad by joining in, taking the blame, and then doing whatever you can to make it better. This will suck. It will cost money. People will have to bust some ass; calls will have to be made; people will have to stay late; and it can't be undone. But, if you deal with it head-on, like a professional, and you really own that failure, you can come out the other end with something good.

What happened with my example? Well, we got on the phone, accepted total responsibility, apologized many times and then let them tell us how angry they were. Then, we apologized some more. After we let the client vent (which you need to do) and let the client talk about all the horrible things that were going to happen as a result of our failure (you have to let them make sure you understand the full ramifications of your actions), we started discussing ways to address the issue going forward with our continuing apologies. I emphasize the apology because you need to make sure you let the person you have failed know that you are feeling it, too. If you jump right into, "I know. That sucked. But hey, we can fix it right now by doing this, or that, or this," then you are denying them their pain. Own it. Then fix it.

We went on to very quickly design and help write an "Oops" email with a even better savings offer which we then paid rush fees to have a pro shop blast out to their list. We got the apology email out within a few hours of the mess up and they only got a few angry emails and a few unsubscribes. We were prepared for the client to never want to work with us again and acknowledged that if that was how they wanted to go, we understood. However, they didn't. They sent us a very nice message several days later thanking us for handling the situation the way we did. They also said something I will never forget. They said, "The way you can really tell what someone's made of is how they deal with a bad situation, and the way you dealt with that one made a lifetime client out of us." Wow.

Failure made us suffer, but recognize things that needed to change; it provided an opportunity for character building, created a story that will never be forgotten and showed a client how we deal with a bad situation. 'Cause face it, there are always going to be failures. While learning to avoid them is natural, how you experience them and deal with them can be monumental to your success.

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published February 23rd 2010