Russ Lidstone
Russ Lidstone
A view from Russ Lidstone

Russ Lidstone: Why encouraging failure isn't quite as daft as it sounds

Many years ago in a "title-deciding" basketball game, with seconds left on the clock and our team one point down, the normally reliable sharp-shooting Lidstone missed a critical and game-deciding jump shot.

The ferocious (and brilliantly named) American coach Sprunt Hill took me to one side at the end of the lost game. Rather than deliver his customary bollocking, Sprunt hugged me and said: "I'll never punish you for missing a shot, but I will always punish you for not taking the shot."

And so to today. For business, there is no doubt: the coming years are a "title-decider". The UK economy has shrunk by 0.2 per cent, the latest Bellwether indicates nervousness and companies we've grown up with are experiencing difficulty. You know the context.

Now is a time when our wonderful industry could revert to what we know. We could assume what Tim Harford describes as the "God complex" (continue doing what we know best like it's the only right thing to do). We could avoid taking the metaphorical "shot" because apparent failure is even more apparent in this high-stakes and ever-changing environment - we've got numbers to deliver and jobs to protect, after all.

But on the recent and excellent IPA/UK Trade & Investment Silicon Valley trip, we were reminded that it is exactly in challenging circumstances and environments where controlled failure should be encouraged and cultivated. People are encouraged to fail in order to improve, learn and for the company to prosper. Hack days, "pretotyping" and an "always in beta" mentality are encouraged. Highly successful companies such as Google and Facebook create the environments and test areas in which to fail successfully.

From another perspective, Kevin Kelly explains in his "Virtues of negative results", part of science's success comes from "keeping blunders small, manageable and constant".

Of course, I'm not advocating reckless risk-taking and encouraging our industry to jeopardise our clients' interests and our agency businesses. But are we doing enough to make the right-sized mistakes in low-risk circumstances?

At Euro RSCG, we are breaking the old model to ensure different ways of thinking and new blended content - integrating PR, social and search, integrated channel and brand planning, combining tech and creative, all on one P&L. We are trying to cultivate opportunities to fail forwards but, of course, there's plenty more to be done.

Undoubtedly, there are some other good examples from different agencies in our industry encouraging "successful failure", supported by the IPA's change and learning agenda.

But there's no doubt that we should be encouraging more cultivated failure in our industry. In order to learn, to grow and emerge stronger. Sprunt Hill would hug us all if we did.

Russ Lidstone is the chief executive of Euro RSCG London.

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