Although failure and innovation are two sides of the same coin, it still hurts when it happens. While the team at GSoft continues to grow, its members recently had a tough decision to make: whether or not to discontinue one of the company’s products. Or, why pull the plug on a tech solution that’s useful and innovative? Éric Routhier, co-founder of GLab, tells us why the team decided to officially discontinue Lighthouse. He also delves into why failure is an integral part of the GSoft culture, and how to take away useful lessons when it does happen.
Innovating or the art of failing
Paul Virilio, French urban planner and essayist who wrote about technology and its impact on humans, would say that the invention of any technology is merely a set-up for its future demise. In the context of rapidly evolving knowledge, discoveries and needs, any given technology has an expiry date, so to speak. And also, is failure really the most accurate term to attach to a technology that doesn’t meet current market demands?
Understanding that an invention has no beginning or end relieves “inventors” of the pressure associated with success. Organizations need visionaries to reinvent themselves, and therefore require employees who take risks. But the latter won’t dare unless their company culture promotes failure. With GLab, GSoft has put in place an innovation lab where failing is part of everyday life. Don’t be surprised if you hear us exclaim: “you must not be trying very hard if you’ve never failed!” That being said, staring failure in the face is anything but easy, and emotions are part and parcel.
Understanding that an invention has no beginning or end relieves “inventors” of the pressure associated with success.
“With Lighthouse, we wanted to help businesses better control the sharing of sensitive or confidential information on Slack,” explains Éric. Slack is a messaging app for businesses that allows employees to communicate with one another, either through common threads or privately. This functionality was particularly useful for IT and support services, which would often lose track of internal discussions. For example, the second a credit card number was provided, the support team received a notification thanks to Lighthouse. The product quickly took off and early sales motivated the team to keep coming up with improvements. However, the number of new subscribers dropped rapidly, a direct result of the limited number of users on Slack App Directory, the platform dedicated to Slack applications. “Our mistake was that we relied on a sole distribution channel,” confides Éric. With sales being few and far between, revenue was slow coming in as well. But the few active users out there took a lot out of the team, requiring support around the clock.
The members of GLab continued to work on Lighthouse for three years, until it became crystal clear: the human investment was no longer worth it. Other, more promising projects were on the horizon, and that was our cue to bid farewell to the product.
Steady does it
“At first, we were frustrated with the outcome,” admits Éric. “It felt as though we didn’t succeed at capitalizing on our idea. A tough pill to swallow!” For the first time ever, GSoft discontinued a product that generated sales. When asked what he’s taken away from the experience, Éric admits he’s a little scared of throwing in the towel too quickly next time. “The point of no return is elusive, and it’s tough to detect when a project is no longer worth investing time into. Even more so when you work with such passionate people!”
In his work The Invention of Culture, Roy Wagner discusses scientific failures; he posits that each failure brings with it a greater collective effort the next time around. He illustrates that, over time, science has evolved incessantly thanks to people challenging it and mistakes being made. In much the same way, GSoft has evolved thanks to its misses. The failure of Lighthouse is not our first and certainly won’t be our last. “The takeaways are huge, both personally and for the company as a whole,” says Éric. It allows us to put things into perspective, and to never rest on our laurels. The commercial success of a product is not the only box that needs ticking.
The team will soon be setting its sights on a more recent GLab innovation. But once again, GSoft sees that as more of a progression. The product in question may not be successful commercially, but it will be GSoft’s first tech solution that uses artificial intelligence. “We assembled a team dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI), and developed a more ample AI strategy for the entire company!” says Éric.
Integrating failure into company culture
That being said, accepting failure doesn’t mean encouraging it at all costs. It means putting in place concrete team communication processes, in order to identify risks upfront and look back on the mistakes made. Being open to feedback, both positive and negative, is also key for employees and managers alike. You’ve got to be ready to ask your collaborators: “how could we have done things better?”, and be prepared to listen to what they have to say. At the end of the day, it comes down to growing from the sometimes painful mistakes we make. But if the entire company is headed in the same direction, the learning experiences of some become elements of growth for all.