Now Accepting Failure: How Harboring Risk Maximizes Creative Success

Marketing evolution is essential in keeping pace with an ever-changing audience and marketplace. Following the lead on most content channels is a fool’s errand; how often are best-practice strategies outdated before they can be shared in detail? In order to evolve independently, marketers must be willing to both experiment and fail occasionally (if not mostly).

In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Tim Hardford names three “Palchinsky principles” of risk-taking. First, Hardford says to seek out new ideas and try new things. Second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable. Last, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

Let’s take a look at how marketers can apply each of Hardford’s steps to their own creative process.

Try New Things

Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Forward!

This is the buzzed-about mantra from Silicon Valley influencers. It feels like binge failing is the new fashion, but recent data is telling a different story.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the share of people under age 30 who own private businesses has reached a 24-year low–falling from 10.6% to 3.6%. This drop isn’t just the result of a poor economic climate: A Babson College survey shows 41% of 25- to 34-year-old Americans who had an opportunity to start a business said “fear of failure” would keep them from doing so, up from 23.9% in 2001.

Fear of failing is the leading cause of creative cancellation. How do we—you, me, our teammates—shake this risk-averse behavior? One solution is to consciously stray from the pitfalls of groupthink. That’s a helluva lot easier said than done.maximize-creativity-quote-1

In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a “vision test” with male students from a Pennsylvania college. Asch sat eight men at a time around a table and showed them a pair of cards. One card had a single line and the other had three lines of obviously different lengths, labeled A, B and C. The experimenter asked subjects to say which of the three lines was the same length as the single line on the other card. Pretty simple, right?


The catch: Seven of the eight men were actors recruited by Asch. These men would give the wrong answer, one by one, and by the time the real experimental subject was called, he’d be stumped. Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed with the clearly incorrect answer at least once.

Often we don’t carry out or even propose new ventures because we’re persuaded by the majority opinion. Keep in mind: Offering an alternative to the consensus does not make you an insurgent or a rudderless devil’s advocate. More simply, the right answer isn’t always the first answer.maximize-creativity-quote-2

Other strategies to engineer new thinking: Talk to colleagues working on other projects. Find out what risks are being taken, what’s working and how they can apply to your challenges. Keep a small Moleskin notebook handy to write learnings and questions. Set a weekly deadline for five new ideas and ask a manager or friend to hold you accountable.

In Adapt, Hardford offers a moving profile of Twyla Tharp, the Broadway choreographer behind Movin’ Out. Tharp literally films herself failing every single day. Each morning, she records three hours of improvised dancing and is content to find 30 seconds that she can use. Once you’re this comfortable with risk, the next step is doing so in an environment that harbors failure.

Make Failure Survivable

“It’s easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” – Amy Poehler, Yes Please.

Trying new things in business, like Poehler found in improv comedy, works when the team commits to taking leaps together. In order to truly innovate, firms should trust that giving people freedom to succeed also means giving them freedom to fail. The challenge here is twofold: How do you share the charge of fostering new ideas and what space can you realistically allocate to bad ideas?maximize-creativity-quote-3

To answer the first, let’s dive into the ideation process at ClickHole. Pitch meetings at the parody publisher are said to go like this: Story proposals are assembled on a long memo without writers’ names included. All parties are then allowed to advocate for others’ ideas, just not their own. Therefore, only ideas favored by a disinterested party are considered, and vetoed anonymous concepts aren’t hits to the creator’s ego. Amazing!

I’ve also seen success with alternating the “leader” responsibility in brainstorm sessions. There’s a real confidence boost gained in simply being forced to speak at the start of a meeting, particularly with conference calls.

The group task of nurturing ideas should not only parse good from bad to start, but also during new processes. In the Freakonomics podcast entitled “Failure Is Your Friend,” psychologist Gary Klein discusses the “premortem.” In this exercise, everyone involved in a project imagines the project has crashed and burned and then offers reasons as to why. In the same way a postmortem on failed assignments might hope to identify the culprit, a premortem tries to predict what might go wrong before it’s too late. Like a bad dream, pretend failures are always the easiest to survive.

The other common component of environments that harbor risk is a reservation of time for bad ideas. The foundation of evolutionary process is repeated variation and selection. If variation is left to free time only, innovation is simply not a priority.

Google puts “no bad ideas” to the test with its famous 20% time policy: Engineers are allowed to spend a fifth of their time on any project they deem worthwhile. Google News, Google Suggest and Adsense were born out of these personal projects. In fact, half of Google’s successful projects were personal projects, along with, as Hardford puts it, “an astonishing portfolio of failures.”

“Eighty percent of Google’s products will fail—but that doesn’t matter,” said Marissa Mayer, former VP of Google Product Search. “Because people will remember the ones that stick.”

Learn From Your Mistakes

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” – Michael Porter

There’s no point in encouraging risks if you can’t measure success and aren’t committed to the results. And learning from trials goes beyond analytics and KPIs; honest assessments from the team can help pinpoint how and where the project flopped.maximize-creativity-quote-4

Take, for instance, the evaluation strategy of NixonMcInnes, a 15-person social media firm in Brighton, England. At monthly meetings, staffers are invited to stand behind a pulpit and confess their mistakes to the group. Failures range from disputes with colleagues to embarrassing goofs that cost the firm money. After a statement of what they’d do differently next time, the room applauds the confession. NixonMcInnes calls this the Church of Fail.

Just as fostering new ideas should be a shared responsibility, so too should the evaluation process. Find ways to elevate consensus feedback on good ideas and, especially, good results. As it is, performance measured from one source is often too narrow and runs counter to how we ascertain results in the virtual world: Amazon reviews, Google search and comment sections are “upvoted” to offer a collective voice.maximize-creativity-quote-5

Responsibility also falls on the individual to self-assess risk-taking and trial performance. Everyone should have what Tharp calls a “validation squad”: people who admire your talents and are capable of providing brutally honest feedback. If your squad includes coworkers, make sure they aren’t competing with you so there’s no secret agenda. Also, commit to a log of your mistakes. Track flubs in ideation, process and performance, and craft solutions to evolve through these failures.

“Here’s the thing about failure in innovation: It’s a price worth paying,” writes Hardford in Adapt. “We don’t expect every lottery ticket to pay a prize, but if we want any chance of winning that prize then we buy a ticket.”

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