Matt Hunt is a professional speaker, blogger, consultant and founder of Stanford and Griggs, LLC. With over 20 years of business and technology experience he has a demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation, and leadership development with large companies, small companies and non-profit organizations.
Matt has worked for Morgan Stanley and Best Buy throughout most of his career. During his time in corporate America, he saw that failure has recently become a favorite buzzword in the popular press and business journals. However, it is still a tainted word in most American businesses that are driven by continued career growth, quarterly profitability and shareholder returns. Executives rarely get promoted based on their long list of failures and employees who risk becoming intrapreneurs are often discouraged from telling their stories and frequently end up leaving the organization where that wisdom becomes lost forever. This missed opportunity to learn from our failures became the spark Matt needed to fuel his drive to move innovation forward. Now, Matt Hunt is ready to share this wisdom and innovation strategies with your organization to fuel innovation and catalog failure as a learning tool to drive organizational enhancement.
MO: What is your own personal failure story, and why are you better now because you failed at something in the past?
Matt: For much of my life, I hadn’t really thought about failure. In fact, I think the same holds true for most people. We go through the first phase of our lives focused on school and sports, which provide some measure of success, but usually buffer us from any extreme failure. With some effort, most students avoid receiving an ‘F’ and, while they may have a losing season with their sports teams, it’s unlikely they’re going to lose every game without some glimmer of hope.
My first brush with failure was my freshman year in college. Like so many students, I was way overcommitted – so much so that there were very few things I was doing well. This stumbling block forced me to rethink my priorities. Eventually, I graduated with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business; looking back, I realized that failure was something I’d experienced, but it wasn’t who I was. I didn’t let failure define me.
This lesson has permeated everything I’ve done since. I’ve worked on risky projects, taken on roles where there was a low probability of success, and changed industries multiple times. I made all of these decisions because I valued the opportunity to learn more than I feared the possibility of failure.
MO: What made you decide to start helping people learn from their failures?
Matt: One of my previous employers launched amazingly courageous innovation projects, over and over again. Oftentimes, they would not pan out as expected, and many of the projects were shut down. At one point, a colleague shared with me what his team had accomplished over the last couple of years; his project was still being shut down. It was really an incredible story, but the reality was that his team had 60 days to figure out what they were going to do next if they wanted to stay with the company.
I asked my colleague if they were planning to share their journey with others in the company, or if they were going to write it down for others to learn from it. He said they weren’t planning to share their story. Their failed project was going to be swept under the rug.
It was at this moment that I knew something was wrong – this was a travesty for both them and the entire organization. They had just poured their blood, sweat, and tears into this project, and they deserved the opportunity to tell their story. Equally, the lessons they had learned were important to share with others – what did they do, what did they learn, and what would they have done differently?
This was the spark for me to share what I’d learned. Most businesses are not equipped to handle failure. They are not prepared to address the impact of failure on the organization prior to launching these innovations, and are, therefore, ill-prepared when it does happen – impacting everyone involved.
MO: What has it been like, shifting from working for a big corporation to now being your own boss?
Matt: It has been a big shift, coming from fifteen years with Fortune 50 companies back to being part of a small business. The negative is that all the responsibility lies on just me, but it’s also great to chart the path I want my company to take. It’s nearly impossible to move a big company quickly – nowadays, I can turn on a dime.
MO: What do you want to change most about corporate America? How will this change things for the better?
Matt: What I want to help change in corporate America is the lack of honesty about innovation and the role of failure. Many companies are eager to talk about failure in the abstract, with advice like “Fail fast, fail early, fail often, or fail smarter,” but no one wants to talk about the consequences or repercussions of failure within an organization. Few want to take the time to plan for the possibility of failure.
If your company wants to be an “incremental innovator,” where you are a fast follower, where you pursue product line extensions, or where you seek growth through continual process improvements, then you are in the world of high probability. In this world, you can mitigate the risk associated with these new projects and manage the possibility that you might fail. The only caveat is that with this strategy, you might also miss the next big thing. For example, you might be a yogurt company and completely miss the Greek yogurt trend because you’re not looking far enough down the road.
If, instead, your company wants to be more active in driving out, your future will be seeking out “exponential innovation” opportunities where you can potentially lead the market. The challenge is that the higher the degree of uncertainty that these opportunities bring, the higher the probability of failure. The success rates of these projects more closely mirror Silicon Valley than corporate America. If an organization is not willing to anticipate and plan for possible failure, then it shouldn’t be surprised when the projects end badly, with executives running for the hills and employees hanging from a branch trying to understand what’s next.
It’s important for every organization to assess which model it wants to follow, and then be honest about it with every employee and stakeholder.
MO: People experience failure on so many levels and in so many aspects of their lives (personally, professionally, and within relationships). Why do you think it’s so popular to brush the problem under the rug and not learn from it?
As I have seen failed innovation projects play out over and over, I have concluded that there are two main factors that prevent us from addressing failure: our fear of failure, and a lack of discipline.
Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator for human beings, and it’s our natural instinct to avoid it at all costs. According to psychologists, our psyche holds the image of how we see ourselves; when we are forced to confront our failures, we are also forced to reevaluate our sense of who we are. Few companies embrace the role of failure, and even fewer promote executives based on their long list of failures. It’s easy to see how our self-preservation mode kicks in and distances us from failure. This holds true in our personal lives as well. What will our friends think of our failures? Will they still want to be our friends?
The second reason we don’t address our failures is that we lack the discipline. Often, in organizations, we don’t ensure that a proper postmortem is completed after a project shuts down. It’s easier if we just move to the next priority. That way, we don’t have to make people suffer the personal humiliation of admitting to their failures, and we don’t have to “waste” the limited resources we have available. In our personal lives, it is easier to protect our psyches by blaming external factors for our failures and simply putting the events behind us.
MO: How you think failure can make our readers better people? What advice do you have for someone who may be dealing with that situation right now?
Matt: Examining failure can help all of us become better people and better leaders within our organizations but, like improving at any task, it will take practice. The first thing I would suggest is to take the time to write your own failure résumé, with both personal and professional failures. Start out by listing each failure you can recall in your life, and then add bullet points with key insights about who was involved and why you think it failed. If you’re not quite satisfied with your answer as to the real root cause for the failure, you can use the “5 Whys” technique by taking your answer and asking yourself “Why that answer?” through five iterations. The resulting answer is usually pretty accurate, unveiling the root cause of the failure – or at least one of the root causes. By performing this self-assessment, you will be better prepared to ask the same questions of your organization’s failures.
As for advice in dealing with this situation now, it’s a little trickier. Depending on the leadership and the culture of the organization, talking about failure might be incredibly difficult and career-limiting. You have to understand how you will be perceived before you begin stirring the pot. One technique I’ve found helpful is to frame the problem externally first. Examine the failures of a competitor or another industry first before turning your lens inward.
MO: Where do you see your endeavors taking you in the future? Are there any dream clients you would love to work with?
Matt: My goal is to get the message of the importance of planning for, and learning from, failure in front of every organization in the country – most large companies, small companies, and even nonprofits suffer from this misunderstanding. To this end, I am writing articles, speaking, consulting, and in the process of writing a book on the importance of understanding failure.