Learning from Failure

Failure is a fascinating concept. Not only does it attract our attention (think of the term "like watching a train wreck"), keep us in thrall and keep us awake at night, it can also be a source of great creativity. Indeed, the Age of Conversation 2: Why Don't They Get It? devotes a whole section to marketers brave enough to own up to their own "marketing tragedies" – and how these have transformed the work that they do.

It is in this vein, that Adrian Ho has pulled together an outstanding presentation on the benefits of failure. Not only does he recount the painful truths that come from doing good work and having it lead to an unexpected outcome, he also neatly wraps this up into a discussion on the future of agencies and of advertising. Makes me think that my perfectionist streak needs some tampering with.

Strategy: beyond advertising

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5 thoughts on “Learning from Failure

  1. Great presentation. Honest and insightful.
    Failure is what makes us human. It’s how we evolve and adapt in our world. It’s how we figure out new ways of doing things and solving difficult problems.
    Sometimes a technical response to a problem is required (where we know the answer already) and sometimes an adaptive approach is needed (where we don’t know the answer, there is more risk of failure, we have to admit we don’t know, and try something different)
    A technical response to an adaptive problem doesn’t achieve much in the long term.
    If you’re interested in the adaptive vs technical leadership theory check out the work of Ronald Heifitz and Dean Williams from Harvard.

  2. It’s amazing to consider the extent to which we as a market have focused on celebrating successful failure. This is probably closely related to our global economic situation – we’re looking for the bright light. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that most businesses are ready to “risk” the celebration of anything other than success. Investors and the general market are not as forward thinking as the hopeful among us. Investors and the market want to invest in order to make money. Learning is just an ancillary function to making money in the eyes of the market, and as such, I’m not quite sure where this trend will net out.
    Few companies will stand up and celebrate failures. And I’m not sure that those that do will be applauded. But as a marketer, I for one will be clapping.

  3. Great post.
    Scott Berkun mentioned something about 3M when he did a presentation on the Myths of Innovation. I forget the actual stat but he said that 3M actually budgets for failure in their annual budgets. I think it was about 15% or something.
    Their theory is you shouldn’t be ashamed of failing as long as you learn something from it. If you are so fearful of failure, you’re never going to innovate, you’ll stick with what you already know.
    How many companies do you know that would sign off a budget for the year with lee-way for failure? Nowhere I’ve ever worked…
    I just found this great quote about the invention of Post-it notes. The inventor was looking to create a really strong adhesive but failed and created a really weak glue.
    “Two choices: Mention this intriguing development to your co-workers or keep it quiet to hide your “failure” rather than exposing it to ridicule.
    If you chose option one, congratulations. You have just invented the central ingredient in Post-it Notes. You chose the second? Oooh, too bad. Your cover-up was so successful, no one knew you’d made any progress at all. And you never did find that super-adhesive.”

  4. Thanks Kate, though don’t know if I need *more* holiday reading 😉
    Jon … agree. Most tend to sweep them under the carpet.
    Cheryl … it’s always tricky – we have performance-oriented corporate cultures. Failure can only be celebrated if it is small scale. Interestingly, the post-it note took about 30 years to come into being. Imagine that sort of failure time frame. Inconceivable in today’s environment.

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