9 lessons from 7 months of relentless failure

Jacki James

  • Digital product lead, Starlight Children's Foundation
Jacki joined Starlight Children’s Foundation to amplify momentum of the organisation’s digital transformation journey. With over 20 years digital experience spanning strategy, UX, engagement and production she is charged with ensuring the marketing technology stack and Starlight’s suite of digital touchpoints deliver a streamlined, customer centric approach that not only delivers exceptional experiences for all customers, but improves ROI and achieves ambitious growth targets.

The most innovative organisations embrace failure. Why? Because it is often through failing the most creative out-of-box thinking happens. And with it comes vital learning opportunities that bring new knowledge and experience into teams.  

With the importance of failure top of mind, I share with you my lessons as Starlight’s digital products leader, learned from seven months of failing during the middle of a global pandemic.

1. Skimping on process will cost time and money  

When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, Starlight was in the middle of rebuilding its flagship website, starlight.org.au. We had partnered with a digital agency and were in the full swing of the agile methodology when things abruptly shifted to work-from-home arrangements. Agile went by the wayside and we swiftly moved to a Kanban approach.  

Among this rapid transition to a new normal of social distancing, somehow I missed the critical agile Sprint Planning ceremony that set the scope for the  donation funnel - the most critical component of the website. Remedying this oversight cost us time, lost us confidence with our internal stakeholders and likely cost the agency money. The lesson here is when crisis strikes, don't lose sight of process.  

2. Strive to remove ambiguity at all costs  

People interpret things differently. What might be shared understanding at your workplace, is not necessarily common understanding for your agency partner.  

Our requirements were documented as user stories. However, the disparity of perspective on one particular element was so vast we had to remove it entirely for launch. More specifics and diligence in crafting, reviewing and approving user stories would have benefitted the project enormously.  

3. Cater well for the human factors  

A global pandemic added new layers of stress and the team was dealing with redundancies of partners and colleagues, illness and COVID-19 tests, anxiety being separated from vulnerable family members, and big changes in living arrangements.  

People are your most valuable asset, but we are emotional beasts and prone to human error. Learn to expect them, assume good intent, and stay solutions focused rather than delving into the blame game.  

On the flip side, in an environment dominated by bad news and restrictions, it was more important than ever to celebrate any good news coming our way. We shared in each other's joys of engagements, books being published internationally and homes being sold.  

Don't limit the positivity to just the personal stuff. During UAT, when we have a laser-sharp focus on all the problems with the website, we make sure to remind the team there is a lot to love about the project you've all been working hard on for so long.

4.Avoid broadcasting a specific launch date  

We started with a goal to launch in April, which quickly got bumped to July. I presented our shiny new website as ‘launching soon’ to the national team in both July and September. By October I lacked the confidence to announce a date in advance. But finally in November after everything was tested and working in multiple environments, I proudly announced launch the national team the next day. It still didn't happen.  

After working in digital for over 20 years, I should have known better. Just because something works in your staging environment and your production environment, is no guarantee that come launch, everything will be the same. Each environment is slightly different and thus creates new unexpected issues.  

My recommendation to others is to broadcast a ‘launching this week’ and limit the specifics to the project team and those directly impacted by timings.  

5. When the going gets tough, revisit your mission  

When you develop your MVP back in Q1, but you don't launch until November, a lot can change. Especially when you throw a global pandemic into the mix. Our business needs had evolved to cope with this new world.  

When I had a key stakeholder tell me they would prefer if the website didn't launch until 2021 it was a massive setback. It rocked me to the core and cast a cloud of doubt over the project that had consumed my focus for over a year now.  

It was only when I revisited the documents that captured our thinking when we kickstarted this project that I was reminded of the key project objectives: User experience, mobile experience, page speeds. As the saying goes, I couldn't see the wood for the trees. I had been so focused on the minutia of the project, I had forgotten the big picture. Knowing the website would deliver on our objectives comfortably, my confidence was restored.  

6. Be very vocal about gaping holes in capability  

While Starlight relies heavily on a plethora of digital technology for both program delivery and supporter relationships, we don't have any back-end developers or server experts on our team. We need these skills only once in a blue moon and as diligent custodians of the donated dollar, it doesn't make sense to have them in-house.  

However, launching a website is that once in a blue-moon occasion when these are much-needed resources. We made sure we communicated this gap in our capability to Starlight management and our agency partner upfront and along the way so that when we hit the issues we anticipated this skill gap would cause, there were no surprises. It didn't make the website launch process any easier. But at least everyone had the appropriate context and awareness as to why things were so hard to solve.  

7. Positive leadership carries you through relentless failure  

When you are running a project plagued with issues and endless delays, you start to feel like a failure. You doubt your decisions and question your capabilities. The negativity seeps into your home life, and your overall energy levels plummet. At this point, it doesn't take much to go from a mildly bad day into a state of despair.

Positive leadership changes that.  

I knew I had the trust of our executive team from the very beginning of this project and continued to receive encouragement from them along the way. My manager constantly focused on the positive aspects of the project, the progress we had made, and these meetings became a much-needed boost of confidence and positivity that carried me forward when the energy and enthusiasm was waning.  

8. Invest in sustainable enduring collaborative relationships  

Our agency partnership is a true case of collaborating as one team. Robust discussions resulted in concessions made and problems solved. Everyone at the agency loved working on the Starlight website project. They cited our collaborative approach and the positivity of the team as key points of difference to their typical projects. They were motivated by knowing the work they were doing was making a difference to a worthy cause.  

The commitment we experienced from our agency partner team goes above and beyond our expectations. We had a developer conduct author training with us only hours after he learned of his own redundancy; another who fixed a mistake while on a day of mandatory leave; a team member made redundant volunteered to continue supporting the project. This is the kind of loyalty and dedication that you can't write into a Statement of Work or Service Level Agreements.  

9. Never underestimate an innovative NFP  

Many people imagine a move to the not-for-profit space will be fraught with frugal budgets and limited resourcing that hampers career development. That's not the case when your NFP is an award-winning innovator and employer of choice like Starlight.  

We are a team of skilled and trained innovators, and curious and creative problem solvers. As custodians of the donated dollar, we always work lean. We experiment, and fail, and are getting better at agility every day. In the face of obstacles and setbacks, we are motivated by our cause, and think of the families of seriously ill children who undergo far more pain and suffering than any website project can throw at us.  

When the emotional strain of relentless failure brings you down, we focus on our strengths and look to those around us to help fill our positivity cup. We bring our best selves and we solider on.  

The website rebuild project has been a journey we started over 12 months ago. 2020 has certainly thrown us more than a few curveballs that have had a massive impact on the project.

Yet after seven months of relentless failure, I am brimming with pride. Pride in our resilience, in what we have overcome, and in the end product.

Tags: change management, not-for-profits, failure, digital strategy, chief digital officer

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