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Fifteen Years of #Failure

Who really likes hearing about success? …really? I’m always suspicious of “Big Breakthrough” presentations, or “How We Triumphed” strategy posts. The repeated frustrations we all wade through daily are far more interesting. They help us learn, keep us hungry for improvement, and build resilience. (This was first published just as I finished a long stint as Marketing Director at Birmingham Hippodrome in 2019).

I’m starting a new venture this spring (following my time at Birmingham Hippodrome trying to tell its story and fill all those seats) to share with others the benefits of 15 years of learning, improvement and, from time to time, failure. There have been occasional successes too, but none of it happens without bumps in the road.

The Audience Agency in its recent report describes two kinds of resilience: survival (or ‘bouncing back’) and adaptive (or ‘bouncing forward’). Failure, either the experience of it or the dread of it, is an important driver, with practical adaptability meaning far more than aspirational words in business plans. Simon Kuper wrote a practical piece in the FT recently about how The Green Movement needs to shape up. Inspired by that (and other articles on LinkedIn), here’s my quick take for the arts based on a few valuable learning experiences.

I’m interested to hear what others think:

1. Take time to build consensus. 

We can achieve little alone. Teamwork is essential. I often failed to spot the importance of sowing seeds, in non-threatening environments, backed up by relevant stats and observations. When those suggestions are repeated around the table, avoid the ‘I told you so’ temptation. Encourage colleagues to start recognising the problem before expecting anyone to find brain space for a challenge or a solution. The people who think slowest often think deepest. Be patient, but be persistent.

2. Decide who decides. 

Years ago I read a clear guide to decision-making, and a fading post-it note by my desk still does its best to remind me: “Consider. Consult. Commit. Communicate. Check.” If the facts change, you can and should change your mind (thanks, John Maynard Keynes). Everyone loses focus when ownership and decision-making is shared too widely, and all too often, that’s when resilience can take a hit.

3. Time for a little R’n’R? 

(No, not ‘rock ’n’ roll’, nor ‘rest and recuperation’ though both play their part.) I’ve tried to thrust this line into artistic planning discussions: Be Relevant and Remarkable, NOT Random and Repetitive. Audiences see through it immediately. How about some new KPIs: ‘how relevant was this to our priority target audiences?’… ‘did anyone really find this truly remarkable, or just another in a long line of examples of what we do?’

4. Don’t shoot the messenger, equip them. 

When organisations shout however legitimately about their own successes, they can just sound arrogant and worthy. Get others to blow your trumpet. Performers are great for some artistic passion, but more importantly don’t underestimate the zeal of the convert (especially the late-in-life newcomer) who can’t believe how much they’ve been missing out. And make it easy for the Trustee or the politician by equipping them repeatedly with core, easy-to-remember, remarkable messages.

5. “Talk to funders in the language they understand.” 

A straight quote from Jeremy Wright (UK Secretary of State for DCMS at time of writing). There remains a case for increased arts funding, he believes, but The Treasury will always need convincing — as with every government department. And it doesn’t only have to be about asking for more money from the same sources. I’ve heard politicians and leaders begging arts organisations for more creative responses to local challenges in health, education and training. As a sector we’re still failing to find compelling ways to contribute relevant and valuable impact. If we did, perhaps it could open up new funding partnerships and grow our audiences.

6. Story-tellers… who, us? 

It’s our stock-in-trade. It’s what we do. So how come we fail too often, as an industry, to get our message across? For our core fans the arts can shake the senses, awaken the emotions, make people think differently and feel connected. But more broadly, many feel ambivalent at best, and often wholly disengaged or confused. Perhaps our expectations are too high. Perhaps it’s that ‘messenger’ challenge. But we need to strike hard, well, and repeatedly to crash through all the noise. Try bringing impact to life by telling personal and hopeful stories across every channel; and go easy on those dark and pitiful tales of impending doom.

7. Make failure work for you. 

How often is this really practiced? And how much do we really learn? Last summer I heard Google’s Luke Rodehorst (he tweets a daily haiku) talk convincingly about failed project teams becoming stronger and contributing even more as they are re-deployed across new initiatives. Years ago I was turned down for a Bridgewater Hall job by the late great Howard Raynor for not having failed sufficiently, nor experienced enough disasters. Maybe I had, but just didn’t value them enough.

8. Sign-post, share, thank. And be generous. 

There’s lots of this on social media, but it feels pretty competitive sometimes. I’m talking about the quiet nudge, or the discreet note which proves you care about someone else’s problem. And think about those big projects that consume every waking hour for months: you deliver the goods, and the partners walk away. I’m not into group hugs, but the occasional recognition boosts team confidence enormously. I wish I’d done more. #Fail

So as an individual, as a team player, as an organisation, a network of partners, or an entire sector, failure, resilience and adaptability are probably the key components of success.

There’s lots to explore. Let me know what you think.

[email protected]

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash