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What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger

It’s time for our industry to embrace failure as a fast track to success. It’s time to lead with the spirit of innovation in how we conduct research and manage our businesses. It’s time for us to understand that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

overcoming adversityPerhaps the most important lesson I have ever learned is summed up by the famous maxim from Nietzsche: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. On both a personal and professional level there have been myriad opportunities to be reminded of this truth on a regular basis, and although these lessons are never fun, I am always grateful for them on the other side.

I was reminded of this yet again recently when I ran across a blog post from Martin Zwilling on Startup Failure is a Positive Step Towards Success. I posted a link on Twitter, and it was one of my most retweeted posts and prompted quite  a few replies from colleagues in the industry who welcomed the insight that Mr. Zwilling shared. In particular a few folks mentioned how this attitude seems almost antithetical to our business culture even though it is obviously true.

Martin shares the stories of several business leaders who initially failed but later went on to great success, and lists some tips for maximizing the learning opportunity of these experiences. He also dropped this little nugget of wisdom:

According to investors I know, serial entrepreneurs who have failed at least once are more likely to get funding from them, compared to entrepreneurs with a perfect track record. Investors know that founders often learn more from a failure than they do from a success, so don’t be so quick to delete a failure from your bio. Serial failures, on the other hand, send a different message.

A failure can be a milestone on the road to success, if you celebrate that failure for what the mistakes taught you – and use the experience to move to the next idea.

This struck home with me for several reasons. First, it’s no secret that the past two years have been a challenging time for many businesses and individuals, myself included. From the decline of my company, Rockhopper Research to the challenges of getting my new venture, BrandScan 360, launched it’s been a roller coaster ride. However, new and interesting opportunities have surfaced as a result of those experiences that have led me down professional paths that I might not have otherwise considered. I now find myself engaged in numerous interesting initiatives and working with people that I enjoy collaborating with, and all due to learning from my previous experiences and applying the lessons in my life. In effect, my “failures” have been gifts that have driven me to innovate myself and my businesses.

At this point you may be saying “OK Lenny, we get it: learn from our mistakes. get up, dust ourselves off, and move on. I learned that in pre-school. So what?” My point is that I think as an industry that is supposed to help companies innovate, we have forgotten these basic principles in both how we add value to our clients and in the development of our own industry. This resistance to embracing innovation, and the inherent possibility of failure involved, may very well be the death of what we know as the market research industry. For those companies that do (and are doing) it, this period of transformation will only serve to make them and the new industry that comes after, stronger.

The connection between personal risk, innovation, and the state of the MR industry was really put into perspective for me by a recent article that John Kearon of BrainJuicer wrote for Market Leader on “The Death of Innovation”. In it John examines the heretical proposition that the adoption of ‘marketing science’ is the reason why large corporations no longer seem capable of creating the kinds of new category innovations that made them big in the first place. He argues that it is freedom from the constraints of marketing science that has enabled small startups to innovate and initiate new behaviors.

John talks a lot about what really drives innovation within organizations and how the “new reality” of market conditions are driving companies to look at how they can use innovation to fuel organic growth. His focus is primarily on how brands can originate new categories, but I think the overall message is applicable across all industries, especially market research.  He outlines 3 rules to follow, and #2 is perhaps the most important of the lot:


Another paradox of successfully originating a new category innovation is that you need failure to achieve it. Failure is the essential ingredient that nobody talks about or acknowledges and everyone tries desperately and understandably to avoid.

But as any inventor, creative or entrepreneur knows, great ideas are not born perfect but are forged in the furnace of trial and error. As Darwin showed, trial and error is the simple but brutal algorithm of life. This seemingly random but amazingly productive cycle of mutation and natural selection has produced the whole of the abundant diversity of life on Earth.

Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, said about progress in any field: ‘Mistakes are at the heart of progress, so our challenge as scientists is how to make more mistakes faster.’

No one likes to fail and companies are no different, perhaps worse, but it seems failures are an inescapable part of successful invention and originality. Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific inventors ever, famously said: ‘I now know over a thousand ways not to make a light bulb’ and tellingly, the first successful Dyson vacuum cleaner was model number 5,127.

What both these inventors embraced is the power of experimentation, where each new mistake teaches you something and the more audacious and new the mistake, the greater the learning. The challenge is to stay afloat long enough to eventually succeed. In my experience, large companies embrace the need for trialling ideas but it’s the failure part they struggle with.

Failure is not generally good for careers and the tendency is to be too conservative, to narrow the field too quickly, to keep experimentation to a minimum and make every effort to reduce the risks of failure.

I think John is spot on here, and our industry is an example of one that has become too conservative. That is why many of the innovations that are occurring are coming from outside of our space, or certainly from companies that don’t consider themselves part of the MR industry.

More examples abound. I could not attend The Market Research Event last week due to the imminent birth of my son, but I followed along virtually via the wonderful bloggers on site and via Twitter. It appears that one of the major themes was Innovation, with everything from keynote speakers to the EXPLOR and NGMR Disruptive Innovation awards highlighting that not only are things changing, but they continue to change at an accelerating pace and our industry is struggling to keep up. Josh Mendelsohn of Chadwick Martin Bailey sums it up on their blog:

Judging by session attendance and the nominations for the EXPLOR and NGMR Disruptive Innovator awards, the vast majority of innovation is coming in the form of qualitative research methodologies and information distribution.  This is being driven by the continuing emergence of technology first companies into the market research space, as opposed to new entries using traditional ideas and techniques.  This new life in the industry is a good thing for sure, but getting from cool technology to useful insights is easier said than done and those who don’t understand the end goal of what researchers are trying to accomplish will likely fail.

… All in all, The Market Research Event was a hit and it is clear that an evolution is happening in our industry.  And as clients and providers get younger and more nimble (and less reliant on traditional methods) we are sure to see more changes by this time next year and into the future.

It’s no surprise that the IIR and other organizations like Merlien Institute, as well as publishers like The GreenBook, social networks like the MRGA and NGMR, and grassroots events like the NewMR Festival are increasingly becoming the “home of innovation” in our space. When the agendas at the conferences put on by our trade bodies are still primarily focused on issues such as sampling theory and survey design best practices (not to mention ISOs and Social Media research guidelines), those of us who believe the future of research lies in a very different direction have no choice but to go elsewhere.

Make no mistake, those issues are important, but only in the context of where they fit into the future evolution of how we deliver real value to our clients. Increasingly it appears that will not be led by the techniques we’ve used in the past, but instead by emerging methods that are driven by adopting the technologies that are fundamentally transforming how we communicate, interact, and engage.

It’s time for our industry to embrace failure as a fast track to success. It’s time to lead with the spirit of innovation in how we conduct research and manage our businesses. It’s time for us to understand that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and that stagnation is a sure fire path to nothing but extinction.

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