Laurence J Peter published Why Things Go Wrong in 1984. It established the Peter Principle (managers rise to the level of their incompetence). I was recently reminded of what Professor Peter had to say about competence: “The way to avoid mistakes is to gain experience. The way to gain experience is to make mistakes.” Thirty-two years on, this is still as good as it gets.
But the current enthusiasm for failure seems to suggest that it should be actively sought; and I think that’s doing failure a disservice. Failure can be confidently relied upon to turn up even when – perhaps particularly when – every effort has been made to evade it. I don’t see what lessons can be learned from a failure that’s been consciously encouraged. Before you learn anything useful from getting things wrong, you have to believe that you’ve got a fair chance of getting them right; and that means thinking things through, trying to imagine what the inevitable unintended consequences might be and actively inviting a contribution from the devil’s advocate. To fail because you failed to apply a lesson you’d already learned is just an expensive act of raw stupidity.
‘Fail fast, fail often’ is the mantra of those who pride themselves on their decisiveness. I once heard a chief executive say: “I’d rather make a bad decision immediately than a good one three weeks later.” And those around him murmured adoringly. No-one said: “Why?”
Failure’s excessive popularity stems from an over-correction. Entire careers have hit the buffers because of one unpredictable error of judgment. That must be wrong. Fear of failure can reduce organisations to a condition of stasis. Because failure is inevitable, it must also be infinitely forgivable – and put to positive use. But it doesn’t need to be encouraged, let alone sanctified. It doesn’t need any help from us. Dear Jeremy, on a personal level I haven’t struck it off with the agency team I’m working with, even though they are delivering solid results. When it comes to building up trust in a client-agency relationship, should I bury these feelings and concentrate on the work they’re delivering? Could there be more disheartening praise for an agency than to hear their work described as solid?
This is how I decode your question. “I get no pleasure from agency meetings; in fact, I’ve come to dread them. The people are polite, efficient, respectful – and utterly, depressingly predictable. Their work is on brief, on time – and utterly, depressingly predictable. When I completed the last annual agency assessment, I couldn’t give them less than 7.5 so they presumably think I like them. I don’t.” As a professional and dispassionate marketing person, committed to serving your company and its shareholders to the best of your ability, you have no choice but to bury your personal feelings and be grateful for the solidity of your agency’s output. As a sentient human being, you can’t go on like this. It’s not fair on you, the agency – or even your company. Solid isn’t good enough.
The chances are that you don’t need to change your agency – just the team, or even just a part of it. You won’t like being critical of polite, efficient and respectful people, but ask to see your agency’s head honcho. Don’t dress up your dissatisfaction as something it isn’t. Be absolutely truthful.
Just be careful that you don’t start enjoying yourself so much that you find yourself signing off flaky work. A lot of your competitors would happily settle for solid. There’s often a profitable place for brands with rather boring images. The older people get, the more they appreciate the boringly predictable. I speak from personal experience here. If this brand has had a rather boring image for 50 years or more, treat it with great care and respect. I know its loyalists will be dying out but research suggests that other people are constantly replacing them.