You hear lots of talk about how failure is a great thing and we should “fail often to succeed faster.” We are supposed to learn from failure. Failure builds character, they say. At FranklinCovey, we think we should avoid failure if we can.
Of course, not all failures are created equal. Some are unavoidable. Some are relatively inconsequential. Sometimes failure is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes trial-and-error is the only way to go. And of course you can learn a lot from failure.
But most people don’t learn much from failure. When they fail, they “learn” shallow lessons like “procedures weren’t followed” or “so-and-so wasn’t the right person for the job” or “faulty execution.” We particularly love that last one—it’s essentially saying “we didn’t execute the way we should have because we didn’t execute the way we should have.” That’s not a lesson; that’s a dog chasing its tail.
Some failures can have terrible consequences. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, late-stage failures are common. Only 30 percent of drugs make it to late-stage clinical trials, and only six out of ten of those make it to the marketplace. Given the immense investment in drug development, late-stage failure can be catastrophic for a drug company.
A drug fails when it just doesn’t work in human beings, or it works but it isn’t safe. But how do you avoid those failures when you can’t ethically test a drug on a human being until late in the development process—what they call “Phase III”?
When you’re executing an important goal, your success depends on two kinds of measures: lag and lead.
The lag measure in the pharma world is legal approval to go to market. In your world it might be revenue or project completion or meeting a budget. But by the time you finally get the lag measure, you can’t change it. It’s out of your control. It’s history.
Lead measures are totally different. They are the most high-impact things you can do to reach the goal. They measure new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measure. A good lag measure is in your control. Acting on the lead measures is one of the little-known secrets of execution.
In pharma, researchers might not be able to tell if a drug is going to work in people or not, but certain lead measures are good predictors. For example, does the drug “concentrate” properly where it’s supposed to? Does the drug “bind” adequately to the part of the body that is targeted? Does the drug fall within well-defined margins of safety?
These things can be observed and measured early in the drug development process. The pharma world discovered that when these three conditions are met before human trials even start, the drug is far more likely to get through the approval process.
So what are your lead measures? If you have an important strategic goal to achieve, do you know what you need to do early in the process to move that goal along?
In another example, a certain shoe store was struggling with low volume of sales. After watching the behavior of their customers for a few weeks, they realized that the more shoes they showed a customer, the more shoes the customer was likely to buy. So they started to track the results of showing multiple pairs of shoes. Instead of showing a customer one or two pairs of shoes, they would show the customer at least four pairs.
The result of this little experiment? Their sales volume shot up.
How do you discover your lead measures? Mostly through dialogue and observation. Ask the people on the front line. What do they notice about customer behavior? What leads to a sale? What do they notice about successful product development? What has worked in the past?
Sometimes it takes trial and error to discover what lead measures will drive your goals. But when you can’t afford a failure, isn’t it worth it to find the right lead measures as early as you can?