Plan for failure to ensure success

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Havas' CEO says it's fine to fail -- as long as you do it right

Failure has enjoyed quite a lift in reputation in recent years. Once an indicator of things gone horribly awry, now it’s considered a necessary byproduct of innovation. A dearth of failures means you’ve been playing it safe — and that’s not a smart way to operate today. That’s certainly the lesson preached at the many FailCon conferences held across the globe. The organizers’ motto: "Stop being afraid of failure, and start embracing it."

Easier said than done, of course. It’s one thing to hit up against failures when tinkering solo on the world’s Next Great Invention in one’s garage. It’s quite another to experience it when face-to-face with the clients who are footing the bills. Those sorts of failures require a bit more finesse. You can’t avoid them entirely, but you should take steps to anticipate them and lessen their impact. I recommend these three principles as the foundation of your succeed-at-failure strategy.

Manage expectations

Leaders have to wear a lot of hats — including that of cheerleader. You need to be able to motivate your teams and promote a level of energy and excitement that will keep everyone fully engaged in the project for the duration. Problems arise, though, when your pep rally turns into a revival meeting of true believers. It happens all too often, especially in creative industries. The process of getting to that kernel of an idea we think will create a huge win for our clients can be grueling, but it can also be exhilarating. The thoughts keep flowing — "How about if we add this?" "You know what would be cool … ?" — and, before you know it, the client team has contracted the fever, too. That’s great. And also potentially hazardous.

I’d never want to discourage pie-in-the-sky ideation. I think there’s some truth to Einstein’s view that "if at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it." Nevertheless, it’s important that expectations be brought down out of the stratosphere in the early going. The longer they’re allowed to float around up there, the more disappointing it will be when they plunge back to earth. So take responsibility for injecting a sense of realism. If someone wants to add Bell X or Whistle Y, have them price it out in terms of both financial costs and time. And make absolutely certain you’ve created a culture in which naked emperors are called out. Questions, criticisms and concerns should be welcomed, not regarded as disloyalty or Eeyore-ism.You never want your clients — or teams — to be blindsided by reality. And that brings me to my next point:

Be transparent

A standard piece of business advice is to under-promise and over-deliver, but a genuine partnership is built on truth. This means being transparent about timing, scope, deliverables, costs, staffing — about anything and everything that the client might potentially care about.

We’re an industry with a strong belief in "surprise and delight," but it seems to me that the surprises we run into more often than not are anything but delightful. As soon as you start to get that nagging feeling that something is about to gum up the works, let people know. If the crisis doesn’t materialize, great. If it does, it won’t appear to have happened out of the blue.

We’ve all watched TV shows and yelled, "Just TELL him/her!" at the screen. (Haven’t we?) Remember that the next time you’re frantically trying to conceal a truth. Getting things out in the open may not immediately solve the problem, but at least it won’t be exacerbated by deceit — and you can start fixing things before they get worse.

Don’t put all your creative juice in one bulb

Mediocre ideas are everywhere — scuttling about in conference rooms and casual conversations and on the street. The problem lies not in generating them but in sweeping them out from underfoot. Big Ideas are something else entirely. We’re elated when we latch onto one and immediately start planning the circumstances of its birth and dazzling future. The problem is that some of these ideas, while brilliant, prove unsuitable for the client objective or simply get stuck in the birth canal because they’re too expensive or difficult to bring fully into the world. You have to show these ideas the door as early as practical (though I recommend jotting down their contact info in case you can put them to better use in the future).

Now’s the part where you’ll be happy you planned for failure. Smart leaders will always have a contingency plan — backup ideas that may initially have shined less brightly but that are better suited to getting the job done. Never become so enamored of one plan that you aren’t prepared to ditch it and embark on another.

A failure should never be anything but a temporary setback and opportunity to learn and grow as a team. If it’s more destructive than that, you’re doing it wrong.

Andrew Benett is global chief executive officer of Havas Worldwide and Havas Creative Group.

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