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Failure Enables Success

The ASAE Technology Conference is next week and features of a tagline of “Revolution and Evolution”. These terms cover the concepts of both reward and failure. Speaking of failure! A fun part of the event is ASAE Fail Fest!

This session is a celebration of mistakes and mishaps, but most importantly recognizes that failure is a key part to innovation and improved growth. This particular session includes leadership who tell stories about how they have failed in the past but learned from their mistakes to create something even more innovative.

In the world of data-guided decisions, it is highly important to have the needed mindset, culture, and technology to accept failure as a possible outcome.

How did we get here?
Association customers over the past decade have a growing number of options and increased expectations. This means we must continuously innovate to remain competitive. However, we still often don’t take needed actions for fear of failing. Why? Because doing nothing is not generally viewed as an action with potential failure.
– People can get caught up in previous high-profile fails and allow these legacy events to impact innovation.
– Time spent planning and researching an approach is often viewed as more acceptable than actually trying the new approach.
– There can be a bias toward new and modern ideas, and away from things that might be tried and true.
– Perceived preferences of leadership can cloud judgement and make good ideas seem like non-starters.

So, how can we change this?
First and foremost, failing must be accepted and built into decision, innovation, and project processes. This is the process of trial and error. We learn from our mistakes to get to the best solution. Here are a few examples of a new value system to consider.
– Lack of trying taking risks should be viewed as missed opportunities!
– Encourage ideas to fail fast, as opposed to fear of admitting failure.
– Understand sunken cost vs future cost, meaning you should not continue something based on time and money spent in the past.
– Beware of the clichés. The idea that “the fee is the cure” implies that you should continue down a bad path based on sunken costs.
– Understand risk tolerance to ensure the cost of failures aligns with association time frames and resources.
– Communicate the cost to correct potential failures as this helps consider the benefits of opportunities.

Why are we so afraid to take the leap?
Like viewing no action as a potential fail, it is important to consider lost opportunity against the cost of failure. One example is the vital task of measuring the success of predictive analytics models.
We might have a model that estimates the propensity for individuals to attend an annual meeting along with segmentation for personalized marketing. Measuring the model requires a “holdout” group of individuals to not receive certain marketing efforts.
Since success is commonly measured by granular registration characteristics such as weeks out and registration type compared to prior years, it can be difficult for people to purposefully limit marketing. This is an important act that requires thinking in terms of broader, lost opportunities.

How does Association Analytics accommodate failure?
As a product-focused organization Association Analytics (A2) carefully balances accepting failure as part of our innovation mindset as well as mitigating it’s impact.

Examples of our own fails:

– When we first began using AWS Redshift, we were instructed by a person of perceived authority to load one record at a time using an API. This appears to be a modern approach as opposed to the seemingly legacy solution of moving around text files but loading text files in bulk is clearly the proper approach.
– It’s always ideal for analytics applications to interact with cached data optimized for performance. We’ve created data sets for high-transaction business events only to reach volume limits. We solved this by reworking the data set to leverage a hybrid approach of cached data and direct queries.
– We’ve used database drivers to accommodate performance, only to later discover limitations enforced by analytics tools. We had to rework solutions using a combination file edits and tedious client-based changes.
Mitigations that make something even better:
– Analytics solution. Analytic solutions are rapidly changing in terms on cost, features, and part of a broader ecosystem. We design our data architecture to be independent of analytic solutions to allow future portability.
– Data architecture. Data warehouse implementations can be costly and time-consuming when not based on industry-specific reference models, such as Acumen. Another solution is a “data lake” approach that makes rapidly available in rawer formats.     – Technology selection. Choosing a technology requires a balance between future features and current staff skills. We’ve selected our technologies, such as Python for various API integrations, based on future market direction and make hiring flexible and agile staff a priority.

Now, what can our leaders do to help?
As we’ve often said, people are more important than technology. Association leadership can enhance innovation by accepting fail in a variety of ways.

– Make failure part of the process. This demonstrates that failures should be managed and are acceptable.
– Think holistically and consider the collective association. Testing predictive models can harm attendance of a few events why significantly improving many others.
– Encourage prototyping and experimenting. The availability of cloud technology platforms makes this efficient.
– Celebrate and publicize failures. If someone takes an innovative course of action that is not successful, communicate that this is needed for innovation.
– Encourage questioning of real or perceived assumptions and bias. Staff might immediately dismiss ideas based on leadership views. Challenging these impressions should be welcome.
– Don’t extrapolate past failures. Understand that not all fails are the same and learn from the past without stifling innovation.
Associations should accept that failure in some respects is an option by not viewing it as an overwhelming tragedy and, of course, try to attend ASAE Fail Fest with us!


Matt Lesnak, VP of Product Development & Technology
Association Analytics

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