When I ran communications for Morgan Stanley in Japan, the mantra from my boss was “fail forward”. A wise CEO and advisor, Mark Weiner of Prime Research (part of CISION), suggested in a conversation a year or two ago that “learn forward” might be a less loaded term.
At Morgan Stanley the goal was to not fail. After all, it’s no one’s objective. We want the opposite – to succeed. But, the value of the idea of failing forward gave me and my communications team the permission to take risks, knowing that if something didn’t work out it would not be career ending. As a result, we were able to execute ground-breaking communications initiatives that had never been done before in Japan.
The knowledge that failure is an option means that, in our lives and careers, we can be less conservative in our choices. This is important. When we play things safe to minimize risk to ourselves or our companies, our choices are more likely to maintain the status quo. The problem is, in a fast-moving world standing still is a quick way to be left behind.
Not every company’s culture provides the freedom to fail. The consequence of failure terrifies most of us. How will we pay mortgages or school fees if we lose our jobs? What’s more, most of us will do anything to avoid the perception of having failed or being seen as a failure.
In a world in which we measure ourselves, and are measured, by what we do, when we fail – and we will at some point in our careers – we may be crushed by it.
When I was talking to a friend about leaving Prudential on my path to becoming an entrepreneur he said, “If you leave you will be nobody.” My response, “I’m not somebody because I work for Prudential.”
In many respects he was right. Others do measure who we are by our business cards. It’s shorthand for determining whether you’re important: Should I invest time with you because there’s a potential value exchange? Because you might have a budget for my communications business, become a potential employer, or be able to recommend me?
While this fundamental, transactional, value-based nature of relationships doesn’t feel good, it’s only by recognizing what’s going on beneath the surface that we can find the inner strength to forge our own paths. In short, to be willing to jettison the anchors of approval and safety to fulfill our, and our company’s, potential.
As every entrepreneur knows, the path to building a business is a lonely one. It’s also the path less traveled if you’re employed and willing to push the envelope.
Although there’s increasing recognition of the value of failure, the idea of “learning forward” provides a positive way to talk about the lessons we learn from the mistakes we make. It encapsulates both the idea of being willing to take risks, and critically, the importance of learning from them.
In the world of tech, learning fast encapsulates the path to success far better than the idea of failing fast. Learning forward is about doing, learning the lessons, and iterating. It’s a series of steps, each of which moves you forward. Yes, there will be “face plants” along the way, but these are teaching moments.
When it comes to communications, taking risk may seem like an anathema. Clients or bosses are looking for a safe pair of hands to manage a brand. Making a mistake can be costly – especially in a world of social media pile-ons. But, so can not doing something daring or different that makes you or your business stand out.
The point here is that learning forward is not about being reckless. It’s about trying things and learning from them. Think “Agile Marketing”. It’s also about communicating. Having the conversation with clients about risks and rewards.
Communications & Entrepreneur Wellness
There’s another dimension to learning forward that’s important: With a growing and much needed focus on the importance of agency, corporate communications, and entrepreneur “wellness” as a key to sustained careers and performance, there’s a powerful psychological benefit to framing failure and learning in these terms.
As we know, stress is a powerful driver of physiological responses that, short-term, may heighten senses but long-term damage our health. If you manage a team of people, creating a culture around the idea of learning forward can both encourage professional development and reduce the stress-inducing fear of failure. And, if you are an individual consultant, employee or entrepreneur, giving yourself permission to learn from mistakes in the context of your life journey can provide a little bit of much-needed Zen.
One of the most powerful moments in my personal journey was adopting as a personal mantra the second half of the title of the 1964 film, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” For me, the “bomb” was the stress from investing in and building my business, but it can equally be applied to embracing the risk that you may fail when doing big or different things.
In summary, here are a few takeaways:
The simple yet powerful concept of “learning forward” offers a path to business and personal development, creativity, and ultimately, achievement. But perhaps most important, it can provide priceless peace of mind in our life journeys.
Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM
CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size. The site has 5,000 agency and professional profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.