Failure Friday: It’s About Them Stupid

Admitting to a little apprehension, I have dared to start a new feature on Friday the 13th. Ironically, if this idea fails it may turn out to be a good example of the kind of experiences that I am looking for students to share with others. “Failure Friday” is designed to provide inspiration and support to our Capstone students by sharing our failures as they ponder their own life experiences and hope to win this semester’s Failure Competition.

So over the next few Fridays I want to share the failure stories of some of our prominent alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the College. If you fall into one of these categories and want to participate, send me your story at I will post a favorite each Friday through July 4th. If I get lots of entries, I may double up on posts each week. I also reserve the right to call people out and ask them to participate.

It seems only appropriate that I start this feature with a story of my own. About fifteen years ago, I headed up a center that was charged with providing continuing education to a largely “blue collar” client base. Most of our clients were well over 40 years old and they were spread out in small groups around the state. I led a team of about seven people who provided these programs face-to-face. This activity required we drive several hours, teach small groups of people, stay over night and return home the next day. The staff time lost in travel as well as the average cost per student of providing this service drove me nuts: I saw it as grossly expensive and inefficient. Like any good manager I looked for a better way, one that would reduce downtime, allow me to cut staff and reduce the per student cost of providing the training.

One day I came across software that I believed would allow us to provide the training over the Internet in real time. The product also allowed people at multiple locations to all participate in the same session as if they were seated in the same class. No more travel, I thought. Multiple location capabilities would allow people from different locations to enroll in the same program thereby increasing average class size. The software was expensive but it was a fixed cost. By increasing our reach, cutting travel and growing our class size, average cost per student as well as total cost per program would plummet! I would then have resources I could reallocate elsewhere. What could be better!

The new delivery mode was a colossal failure. Why? The technology in 2002 was primitive by today’s standards, but enough to do the job. Yet hardly anyone enrolled. What I hadn’t sufficiently considered was the needs of the end user. That user was over 40, uneasy around new technology and had developed strong personal attachments to my staff. They didn’t want Max Headroom on a screen (go ahead google that reference). They wanted education in a setting that permitted beer with the instructor after class (think of it as office hours).

In being so fixated on solving “my production problem”, I forgot to meet the needs of my target audience. In the end, it is always about their needs, not yours. You would think this would be an easy lesson to learn, but I have to relearn it from time to time. (Bob Porter is reading this right now and smiling.) So remember: it’s about them stupid.

Okay who is next with a failure story? You reading Merrell Bailey (frequent mocker of my failure competition idea)? Pony up.


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