Tuesday 14 February 2017 9:17 am

For successful businesses, failure is not an option – it's a requirement

Urgent memo to executives everywhere: please stop saying things like “failure is not an option”.

You’re engaging stakeholders – not saving Private Ryan. And if you are fostering a fear of failure among your people, you probably aren’t winning either.

Let’s look at winning in today’s world, where it is increasingly crucial to spark emotional relevance with hyper-connected and uber-opinionated audiences in a fast-moving global dialogue. In order to achieve success, we must embrace its opposite: failure.

Put it this way, “good news, we failed” needs to be a socially acceptable statement.

That’s right; failure isn’t only an option – it’s a requirement. So you’d better do it right. Brands need to learn how to fail without damaging their organisations, internally or externally. For real-life examples in this digital age, where better to look than Silicon Valley?


For decades, software developers have championed the agile work process. Organised around a carefully aligned and highly collaborative process of scrums, the agile model allows extraordinary flexibility by grounding strategy in careful planning and meticulous, consistent measurement. It recognises that repeated, even relentless, failure is what paves the way to all great innovations – and that fear of failure is often even more harmful than actually failing.

When brand equity and value can be instantly decimated by anything from an employee uploading a video of awful behaviour, to the US President tweeting about your brand, most business leaders are more than ready for a quick pivot to a new approach.

Quick pivots are what being agile is all about. But that doesn’t mean agile is all about crisis response. Quite the opposite. Just look at Apple.


Agility has been instilled in the company’s culture since the beginning. When it released the iPad, people ridiculed the name. But sales soared. When it debuted the jackless iPhone, people scoffed. But now it’s revered. Apple has trusted in its process of risk-taking, collaboration and focus on customers, and it works. Success is a result, but it doesn’t come at the cost of creativity and agility.

When only wins are valued, it creates a culture of fear, caution and hedged bets. Boundaries are never pushed, conventional wisdom is rarely questioned, and modest, incremental progress is a best-case scenario. If creative risks – which by their very nature and definition might not work – are punishable offences, why would anyone take one?


To unlock the benefits of fast failure, organisations must destigmatise it – while implementing the process of testing results with real-time analytics. Parse the data with expertise and insight, identifying where something went wrong, and then apply that understanding to next steps and course corrections. And keep it nimble. In the agile process, all of this happens in short, contained work segments or scrums that repeatedly return to testing and planning, leading to greater awareness and collaboration.

Does this ensure successful results every time? Of course not. But it does catalyse a culture of trust and accountability, as well as a powerful balance of creativity and accuracy.

So don’t hobble your organisation or limit what it can achieve by trying to create innovative breakthroughs with outdated methods. In our hyper-connected and fast-moving world, we can no longer live by the outdated credo “failure is not an option”.

Choose this instead: “Failure is not optional”.


Marian Salzman is chief executive of Havas PR North America. Her latest book, Agile PR, was published by AMACOM in January.