Innovator’s Toolkit: Adland and the power of failure
by Preetesh Sewraj (@iPreetesh) The power that failure offers the agency, client or lone innovator is tremendous and needs to be embraced and incorporated within South African corporate culture.
The Silicon Valley community is famous for embracing failure and living by the motto “Fail faster.” This has created the tenacious mindset that makes Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such a legendary group. When investigating the origin of this thinking process, it’s not surprising that it’s been so successful when one understands that it was first developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a division of the US Department of Defense. The rigid military environment has created a thought process that is now the cornerstone of some of the most-innovative ideas being created.
The South African innovation space has many pioneers but, when we evaluate the employment landscape, it’s not difficult to see that we aren’t a society that embraces or celebrates the value of failure. The need to succeed on the first try has resulted in many great campaigns not being taken to market and many potentially great products not being progressed past the first few hurdles experienced by its creators.
The following are some of the key thought points that may help incorporate a “building on failure” mindset:
1. Create a pre-mortem mentality
The corporate culture is strong on a campaign post-mortems, where every detail of the campaign is scrutinised. Key reasons for challenges are dissected but the concept of a pre-mortem is a best-in-class tool for success. When a pre-mortem is done, the campaign is evaluated before it rolls out and all key stakeholders assume that it has failed already. Questions are then asked as to why the campaign failed and the weak areas of the campaign.
Many of us are so excited by our ideas that we refuse to critically look at our campaigns and face potential weak areas. Through the use of a pre-mortem, we adopt a failed mindset and ask why the failure occurred. This helps fix issues early and further increase the potential for success.
2. What was the root cause of the failure?
Failure is part of the learning experience but negligence and inadequate motivation are inexcusable. When evaluating failures, each stakeholder must be open not only to assign but also to accept blame. Failure caused by individuals who aren’t team players is not a learning opportunity but a systematic breakdown that should be a warning sign, not just for subsequent projects but for the division or organisation as a whole.
It is important to distinguish if individuals are the potential weak points and how they may be removed from the project. When all players are in a state of progressive harmony, we may then evaluate other project-specific pain points and solve these issues with the support of all major stakeholders.
3. How may the experience stimulate greater risks?
Once the organisation is as close as possible to an ideal state of equilibrium, there needs to be a push for greater risks. When failures are experienced, especially ones that befall entire organisations (such as the loss of a major pitch), a mood of risk aversion can set in.
Some of SA’s best agencies have experienced this as the loss of pitches turned strong vibrant bodies into risk-adverse companies that soon saw their best talent and clients exit as the mood moved through the agencies.
Each failure needs to be an opportunity to push forward harder and not to retreat. This push forward is not only a show of resilience but also a signal to the organisation that a single loss isn’t indicative of overall ability.
4. Do we create organisational heroes who have triumphed over adversity?
Everyone stumbles and experiences losses. Elon Musk experienced this once again recently when the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded a day before takeoff, destroying not just the rocket but precious cargo and denting the image of SpaceX. Despite this, his failures are celebrated as stepping-stones to greater success. We have individuals like him within the agency environment but their great risks are seldom celebrated as we, instead, accept mediocrity.
Organisations need to recognise and reward these individuals who are willing to sacrifice their personal brand equity in the hope of greater success for the overall organisation. GoogleX is famous for handing out awards to individuals who bring new thinking, despite initial setbacks in their thought process. We may need agencies to do the same to foster a culture of innovative thinking.
The power of failure needs to be celebrated more in the SA environment. Success in a mediocre environment is easy but success while challenging accepted thought processes will always be difficult. As we innovate, let us create spaces that make radical thinking not just accepted but a core part of the project creation.
Preetesh Sewraj (@iPreetesh) is the CEO and chief innovation analyst at Product of the Year South Africa. He is passionate about the various facets of innovation that touch our lives and improve our life’s journey. He contributes the regular column, “Innovator’s Toolkit”, looking at innovation trends and the impact of innovation upon our ability to capture the hearts and minds or consumers, to MarkLives.