Like many trendy phrases, “failing forward” gets tossed around quite a bit in marketing and advertising blogs, trade mags and industry interviews. I’m seriously thinking of adding it to our marketing jargon Bingo card. That said, the concept seems appropriate to “agile” marketing concepts, and especially applicable to new media development, roll-out and testing.
In essence, “failing forward” means to take risks and test new things, anticipating you may fail, but striving always to learn from that failure and move ever forward.
Who coined the phrase?
I’ve been remiss in my reading, it seems: the phrase “failing forward” escaped my notice until a LinkedIn connection, John McCafferty of McCafferty & Company Advertising, Louisville, KY, referenced an article that discussed the concept. After some exploring online, it seems the originator of the term as applicable to business is prolific author John C. Maxwell, perhaps best known for his books, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You, and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.
Maxwell published Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success, in 2007. Since then, the term has proliferated, as such catch phrases inevitably do. It has been picked up by self-help gurus, Christian counselors, life coaches, and most recently by the marketing industry.
Apply failing forward to the agency business, and you arrive at a culture built around creative risk-taking, trying new things, constant learning and adapting to change. In a creative industry like ours, failing forward becomes an essential part of the agency vision, a mindset that you hope would infect your entire staff and, hopefully, the clients you serve.
Maxwell’s Seven Principles for Failing Forward
Here is a look at how Maxwell’s principles might apply in the marketing realm.
Reject Rejection - Achievers accept failure as part of the journey and do not let it affect their self-image. They persevere, learning from mistakes and adjusting behavior to succeed “next time.” Translate this attitude to marketing, and you have creative risk-takers who embrace innovation, adapting to failures by changing up tactics and strategies, and testing until they get the desired result.
Don't Point Fingers – Blaming others for failures leads to a victim mentality, and a culture where no one takes responsibility. Failing forward means people accept setbacks. They say, “Okay, that didn’t work… what have we learned and what can we change to make this work?”
See Failure as Temporary – It’s important to keep failures in perspective. Your agency needs people who see failure as a temporary situation, not an inescapable quicksand sucking them under. Encourage agency employees to quickly look for fixes, not wallow in despair.
Set Realistic Expectations – Perfection is an unrealistic goal and invites failure, along with all of the emotional fallout. Determine reasonable goals, plan strategies to reach them, and measure for results. If you miss on the first try, adjust and re-test.
Focus on Strengths – It seems obvious that playing to your strengths will lead to fewer failures. Know what your agency is best at, and lead with those strong suits. But also strive to learn and become strong in areas where your agency is weaker.
Vary Approaches to Succeed – Finding what works is all about perseverance. In today’s consumer-driven marketing environment, it may take multiple tries to find the best strategy, tactic or engagement vehicle. Don’t give up until you find the best approach for the project.
Bounce Back – Resilience is the best characteristic an agency and its people can share. Develop a short memory for the negative emotions that go with failures. Focus on the positive energy that accompanies success. Put the bad stuff behind you; in the future, it’s all good.