Learn to fail to get ahead in marketing
A view from Sue Unerman

Learn to fail to get ahead in marketing

Failure may be regarded as something to be avoided in education and in business but in science it is regarded as crucial for success.

A new study into teaching has pointed out that one of the failures of our education system is that it doesn’t prepare students for failure, nor reward them for making mistakes, which is a mistake. How do you learn, if you’re not learning from your mistakes?

The study from the Open University (by the way the brightest hope for social mobility in the UK) reports that teachers should prepare students to fail so that they can learn. This requires a real change to teaching techniques.

Mike Sharples, chair in educational technology at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology, admits that while "trying to fail successfully" sounds contradictory, it allows students to gain insight into a topic before they are taught it.

"For the learners, you’ve got to say to them. You’re going to fail with this, you’re going to struggle, you’re not going to understand it in full, but try it," Professor Sharples told Times Higher Education. "And for the teacher, they’ve got to hold back and not try to profess their subject, not try and teach the topic, but to let the learner explore first in a controlled way."

Stuart Firestein, chair of the department of biology at Columbia University, agrees that great scientists are great at failure, as he points out in his book Failure, Why Science is so Successful.

He says the best scientific experiments rest on "two great pillars, ignorance and failure". Whereas failure is regarded as something to be avoided, both in education and in business, in science it is regarded as crucial for success.

If you embrace failure as a necessary step towards progress, it makes it easier to learn from it and helps people to be much more positive about it both at school and in the workplace.

The general culture in many businesses is to celebrate success. Our prestigious awards shine a light on brave and creative business building campaigns. As of course they must. An army of PR gurus help our leaders present themselves in a strong and invincible light. In a world as fast moving as the marketing and media community who has time or space to reflect on failure?

If you embrace failure as a necessary step towards progress, it makes it easier to learn from it and helps people to be much more positive about it both at school and in the workplace.

Brilliantly it seems the Marketing Society is doing just this. Early in February they held an event where the leaders of the marketing community opened up about their failures.

Syl Saller, Sarah Warby, Dominic Grounsell and Annabel Venner spoke to Marketing Society CEO Gemma Greaves about their mistakes. It’s clear from the resounding applause on Twitter that the event inspired. As one Tweeter posted, "Its rough seas that make good sailors".

As 2017 looks likely to provide more rough seas, it is incumbent on all business leaders to encourage and make failing acceptable and safe. This isn’t just about rhetoric. It might require big changes in how we coach and train our employees as well as how we teach kids at school. As my CEO Josh Krichefski has stated publically, "where we stumble there we find treasure".

Do businesses need a culture transformation? How about KPIs for "good failures and lessons learned"? Open your next team meeting with the question, "Who’s had a brave failure this week?"

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer at MediaCom.
@sueu