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To Truly Succeed, Marketers Must Embrace Positive Failure

Let’s start this discussion with three company press release headlines that I’m pretty sure you have never seen:

“Our hot startup declares we completely missed our product-market fit.”

“Company notes that we’ve almost won some awards, but haven’t quite done it yet.”


“Results show we win four out of 10 deals, but we’re working on getting better.”

If you are the chief marketing officer (CMO) of an organization, would you approve these releases to go out? I’m willing to bet that you wouldn’t. While these headlines are extreme, there’s an underlying reality here that is essential to understanding the motivations of your marketing team: Almost everyone assumes that being a marketer means always spinning a positive position.


Yet, every other team in your company has a way to internally discuss failure as part of the regular cycle of business:

• Sales talks about a lost deal.

• Software development tracks bugs.

• DevOps talks about unplanned downtime.

• Security is responsible for incidents.

• Customer success logs churn.

• The executive team owns a miss against the quarterly number.

Not only do these teams track failures; they have names for them that go beyond “Wow, we messed this one up.” It’s a powerful acknowledgment that failures, as unpleasant as they might be, are a part of the ongoing process that makes us better at what we do. Yet I find that marketers, with a desire to be focused on the silver lining, rarely discuss failure in a way that makes it a regular and positive part of their process.


Positive Failure

My belief is that marketers must embrace positive failure. If marketers truly accept and analyze failure as part of their ongoing process, they will accelerate their own successes.


Positive failure is a bit more specific than “failure.” I’m sure we could all be royally successful at missing the annual lead generation goal, or completely whiffing the positioning of a new product. Positive failure is not just the act of failing, but also the process around it. Positive failure consistently shines a light on manageable failures and encourages the marketing team to learn from them — with no shame or penalty to the individuals involved.

How can you embrace positive failure? The key is to put a culture in place that embraces failures and the accompanying process to learn from them. While this will not be easy, especially for marketers who are wired for exactly the opposite, the rewards can be outsized.


Three Steps To Bring Positive Failure To Your Team

Here are three techniques I use to help organizations make the shift:

1. Create opportunities for micro-failure.

No one wants to be the person credited with a “positive failure” around the biggest launch of the year. It’s so big; it’s so important; it’s so stressful. And frankly, that launch is the wrong place to test failure. Choosing micro-failures means isolating small projects or sub-projects that give team members the freedom to try new techniques or new vendors in a low-stakes way.


• Instead of “the big launch,” what about using a new e-book format for a content marketing asset within the big launch?

• How about testing a new marketing automation workflow with a subset of leads?

• Or a new internal project management process to improve team communications?

These are all ways to acknowledge to your team that there are ways you can improve, and small experiments can move you forward. With some discussion and brainstorming within your team, I am confident you will source dozens of micro-failure opportunities.


2. Create retrospectives to discuss performance.

Simply creating micro-failure opportunities is not enough. The process around your regular operations must embrace failure. Do yourself a favor: Ditch the launch post-mortem. That focus on a singular event is hard and irregular, and it usually only focuses on a subset of your team.


Instead, borrow a technique from agile software development called the “retrospective.” It’s a regular meeting where you break down the good, the bad and the ugly of your past week, month or quarter. Had a major launch? Great. It can be a topic in next month’s retro. Impressed by how well an experiment is going? It’s a safe space to brainstorm why it worked. Just stuck a fork in an ongoing initiative? Concerned that team communications are breaking down? Add it to the mix.

The key to retrospectives is consistency: consistent cadence, a consistent group of people and, oh yes, consistent follow-up. When the team decides on the next big priority, gap, failure or opportunity, it needs to be reviewed at the next retro.


It will take a few retrospectives to get buy-in from your team, but once you do, they can produce amazing results.

3. Celebrate those who risk and fail.

We’re used to giving kudos to individuals who get the results the company wants. In fact, in many cases, we do that even if they get results by luck or chance.


While in the long run, there is no replacement for results, in the short run, I prefer to look at the activity, effort and thinking behind achieving a goal. It’s these behind-the-scenes measures that really show who is helping to build a sustainable, successful organization. And the reality is that many of these efforts may be failures. Instead of sweeping the effort (and by relation, the person) under the rug, do exactly the opposite!

Celebrate the people who create positive failure, and showcase them to the company as the individuals who are pushing everyone forward.


Failure Is A Reality, So Let’s Make It Positive

Failure happens every day, to every team and to every person. It’s an important element of who we are and how we get better. In order to truly benefit from that failure, marketers must embrace it. They must remove it from the realm of fear and shame, and make it part of their process. Only by making failure a respected part of our craft can marketing organizations truly excel and break through in new ways.



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