failure

The Chemistry of Turning Failure into Success

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. Failure is often the guiding light to success, including in public affairs. There rarely is a straight path from A to B. There are often ditches, detours and dead-ends. It takes self-confidence to weather failure and reach success.

Failure doesn’t make someone a loser, but history shows failure can lead to success. Exactly what is the chemistry that converts an ounce of failure into a pound of success?

The scientific method regards failed experiments as useful because they eliminate one path and invite pursuit of alternatives. Failure is less a roadblock than a detour sign. Thomas Edison summed it up, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Some failures produce unexpected success, such as the discovery of an unintended use of a substance or process. Some of the most gainful inventions were actually accidental successes. Google Post-It notes for a good example.

The attitude of people toward failure can be a huge factor. Some see failure as the end. Others view failure as the beginning. Or, as Winston Churchill noted, “success is stumbling from failure to failure.”

Stumbling from failure to failure isn’t exactly an inviting prospect, especially in a field such as public affairs. Clients expect public affairs professionals to “fix” their public issues, not fumble them. 

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

A large part of the chemistry to turn failure into success is mental attitude, including the self-confidence to accept failure as merely a detour on the road to success.

Failing to fix a client’s problem can be humiliating and demoralizing for public affairs professionals, who pitch clients on the prospect of victory, not consolation prizes. Good public affairs professionals win more than they lose, but everyone loses sometimes.

The image of a public affairs professional as a “fixer” isn’t useful – or usually accurate. Yes, public affairs professionals, if they are worth their fee, have relevant experience, good contacts and a huge dose of savvy. If they really know what they are doing, they will focus their attention on what they don’t know before spinning out a strategy.

In this sense, the discipline of public affairs is a lot like a scientific experiment. You need to test your hypothesis and let the results guide your actions. Testing the waters might take the form of talking with trusted sources, closely reading media coverage, consulting with legal experts or conducting research, often via one-on-one interviews. 

A client may have a clear understanding of his or her public problem. The public affairs professional’s responsibility is to develop a clear direction to address that problem. The solutions to most public affairs challenges aren’t as simple as stepping from A to B. The chance for strategic missteps or detours is high. Failure at one turn can’t be construed as total disaster. Sometimes a failure is the light post to the pathway to success.

That suggests the chemistry for converting failure to success depends a lot on mental attitude – curiosity instead of bravado, flexibility instead of rigidity, honesty instead of spin, self-confidence instead of over-confidence. The right chemistry also requires an underlying optimism that success is achievable and the resiliency to keep searching for the road to success amid failure. Albert Einstein’s well-known words are apt, “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Success for a public affairs professional is seldom a hero’s walk. More often, success involves deep questioning, a realistic objective, a strategic plan and thoughtful execution of that plan – with eyes wide open for ditches, dead-ends and detours that require a modified route. Patience is a virtue. 

The chemistry of success boils down to self-confidence in finding a way that works, regardless of how many twists and turns it might take.  Getting to success doesn’t have to be smooth, simple or pretty. You just have to keep trying to get there.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Failure, Messy Innovation and Success

You can’t fail unless you try. You can’t succeed if you don’t fail. Take it from Homer Simpson who should know.

You can’t fail unless you try. You can’t succeed if you don’t fail. Take it from Homer Simpson who should know.

Trying is the first step toward failure, says Homer Simpson. In our society, failure is a four-letter word. Maybe it shouldn’t be.

The TED Radio Hour last weekend focused on failure. The show included an interview and TED Talk excerpts from entrepreneur Astro Teller who said he rewards colleagues at his moonshot factory for failing. Calling innovation “messy,” Teller said the ability to recognize and acknowledge failure allows people to stop heading in the wrong direction and start fresh looking for a productive direction.

The secret to success, Teller says, “is learning how to kill projects” so they can be reborn.

Economist Tim Harford, who wrote Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, says trial and error is a tried-and-true method to solve problems. Brilliant Eureka moments may occur sometimes, but Harford says it is better to embrace failure and constantly adapt, “to work from the bottom up rather than the top down.”

Casey Gerald, who founded MBAxAmerica, espouses the “Gospel of Doubt.” Gerald said core beliefs have let him down in life, helping him to learn that “clear-eyed doubt can sometimes be better than belief.” Innovation doesn’t start with certainty, just curiosity and resolve.

Writer Lidia Yuknavitch, who collaborated with Ken Kesey on a collective novel project at the University of Oregon, said early career failures fueled her efforts to “find worth” in herself as a writer.

The theme of the show, hosted by Guy Raz, was “failure as an option.” Far too often, failure is seen as an end point, not a launch pad; as a sign of defeat rather than a signpost to move in another direction.

Many communications projects are scrapped because they initially don’t succeed or underperform. Sponsors or the communicators themselves give up without trying to fix what is failing.

Excellent communications strategies and tactics are frequently the product of trial, error, testing and restarting. If at first you don’t succeed doesn’t mean you can’t ultimately succeed.

Twyla Tharp, one of the greatest choreographers with roots in Seattle’s ballet company, received highly critical reviews of her dance musical Movin’ Out set to the music of Bill Joel. Instead of closing it down, Tharp methodically ironed out each criticism of the show, and from there the show went on to earn 10 Tony nominations.

Tharp wrote a book called The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, in which she describes the habit of realizing you are in a rut. Ruts, Tharp says, are like false starts. The only way to get out of a rut, according to Tharp, is to admit you’re in one, climb out and look for fresh inspiration or untried approaches.

That’s good advice. Failure is not a permanent condition. It’s just the first step on a longer journey to eventual success.