'Failure Wall' Inspires Success

Dun and Bradstreet Credibility

Jeff Stibel was trying to motivate his employees to feel more comfortable with the idea of taking risks.

So late one night the CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility let himself into his Malibu office, painted a wall in the company’s recreation area white, and with the help of his wife, stenciled quotes from famous people that he hoped would motivate his team.

Quotes like this, from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

And this, from Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”

And this, from Stibel himself: “Should have sold simpli.com to that little company in Silicon Valley (Google).”

He attached a Sharpie pen to the wall. And then he went home.

The next morning, as employees came into the kitchen area for morning coffee, they noticed the wall. They read the quotes. And they talked about them. It took almost a week, Stibel said, before a junior employee picked up the marker. And then things got interesting.

“Within about 24 hours of him writing about his own failure, we must have had 30 more people write something,” said Steibel.

Some were stock market misses. “I thought buying Yahoo at $485 was a good idea.”

Others showed insight into how one failure could lead to success.

“My successful failure was to work in online marketing when I came to LA to work in showbiz.”

From there, said Stibel, the wall took on a life of its own; partners came in, saw the wall, and asked if they could post their own failures. “An svp of Yahoo, the CEO of the Better Business Bureau — very senior people wrote their failures and said, ‘this is a very cathartic experience.’“

And now, seven months later, the Failure Wall is inspiring Dun & Bradstreet Credibility’s 600 employees to adopt a new workplace attitude. The company, which provides credit solutions for businesses, “encourages risk-taking and entrepreneurial thinking in other companies, so we want to encourage it here, as well,” said Stibel.

It has also inspired the HR team to incorporate failure into the review process. Employees will be asked to explain how they have failed, and “we are going to judge your success based on your failure.”

Dun and Bradstreet Credibility

Stibel says that putting failure out front has also helped his employees get products to market more quickly. “We used to do three- and four-year projects, with dozens of consultants, slowly rolling a product to market. Now, we use the fast-failure model: We have a prototype, put it into beta with customers, and then customers tell us whether we are succeeding or failing,” he explained. “It’s a calculated risk: We learn from incremental failure, and have geometric success.”

Stibel says the company achieved double-digit growth last year, the best in the company’s history.

And the wall continues to fill up. “It’s jam-packed now,” said Stibel. And, while one employee instituted a rule — orange Sharpies for visitors, green for partners and blue for employees — it’s still a free-though free-for-all.

The posts are slowly creeping to an adjoining wall, and there is talk of moving the Wall of Failure to another area. “I’d rather people just write smaller,” says Stibel, who likes the visual impact the wall makes. You could say it represents success.

email: patricia.orsini@nbcuni.com