After all, it’s not a new concept that failure isn’t a sign of weakness, but a byproduct of great effort. As T.S. Eliot said (and you’ll hear more from him later), “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
At some point, though, a creative solution that you’ve poured your heart and soul into is going to miss its mark. You know the signs: your big presentation ends in a deafeningly silent room. What you thought was a masterful deliverable either gets an immediate no, or worse, lingers for a few days before you realize it was D.O.A.
Your client calls and says, “We’ve gotta talk…”
What I have to say to that situation (definitely not the client!) is SO WHAT?
What’s important isn’t that you failed, but what happens next. By the time you finish reading this post, you’ll have a roadmap to pull yourself out of the slump and get back on track to take the next shot at success.
Start with acceptance
There’s something very important that you have to accept right away….
And no, it’s not that your precious idea tanked.
Now, I’m not saying that’s not painful. I don’t even subscribe to the idea that creatives need to have a thick skin in order to be successful. In fact, I say, go ahead and be heartbroken. That means you are invested in what you do and care about delivering for the client.
Hidden in that last sentence is the key. We’re all professionals — or at least striving to be seen that way — so our jobs are centered around coming up with game-changing work that builds businesses and boosts their bottom lines. It is a privilege to be hired to launch or revamp someone’s brand, and it’s not about you. It’s about the client.
Reset your mindset
It’s not an understatement to say that mindset is everything. It’s the lens that allows you to see any situation one of two ways: as a problem or as an opportunity.
There’s a million tweets and posts a minute with research showing that a growth mindset, where truly believing you can learn and improve, is a major indicator of success. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, keeps you stuck in the muck of thinking that you can’t change the outcome. Flip into a growth mindset, and you’ll diffuse the impact of what flopped, and replace it with the energy necessary to learn from the experience and plan your pivot.
Other important attitude adjustments come into play here, too. Look to cultivate a curious mindset. A creative mindset. A beginner’s mindset. An outcome-obsessed mindset. Create your own mindset mash-up that takes the best of all worlds. Stop focusing on what coulda/shoulda/woulda happened, and just focus on the present moment. Ask yourself and your team, Where are we now? Now that the lens is adjusted, you can more easily spot the opportunities with fresh eyes and without judgment or emotional baggage.
Embrace your next “bad idea”
When something flops, it’s a very human response to call it “a bad idea.” After all, if it was a good idea, it would’ve been a hit, right?
Not necessarily. When an idea fails, it’s easy to take it personally. Which it’s not — ideas are great, abundant especially in creative spaces, and also totally disposable. I agree with what Steve Jobs once said: “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.”
The thing is, the path to incredible ideas and excellent executions are paved with bad ideas… and that’s totally fine. Sometimes they are flat-out off the mark, and as we’ve discussed, that leads to an opportunity to learn from the miss and move on. And other times, great ideas are improperly labeled “bad” because there isn’t shared alignment on what the measurements of success are. Still other times, people get hyped up about things that ultimately don’t serve them.
The good news is that after you’ve cycled through a bunch of bad ideas, when you arrive at not just a good idea, but the right idea, you’ll know it immediately. First off, it will solve the problem at hand. It will be radical in its simplicity and transferability. And its value will be emotional, visceral and clear.
Lean into uncertainty & let resilience be your roadmap
Have you ever noticed how the world’s most famous inventors get credit for their ingenious creations, but we seldom get to hear about the effort and thousands of experiments and failures that led to their lightbulb moments?
Thomas Edison, who is often called America’s greatest inventor as he’s credited with developing the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the electric lightbulb, among other industry disrupting inventions, was also a great source of creative truisms. He talked about hard work, not ingenuity, as the key measure of success and was a master of reframing flops as fantastic discoveries:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Being able to withstand the discomfort of failure and recovering quickly is what separates the amateurs from the pros.
Lead with interest, inquiry and intention
I believe that the greatest question we can always ask ourselves and others is WHY?
Why did the pitch fail?
Was it the way the idea was presented?
Did the client not like the person who was presenting? Or was it the idea itself?
Did the concept not solve the problem?
What was the problem in the first place?
This is where Design Thinking in its purest form comes in. It’s human-centric, creative and action-oriented. Even if it’s how you began your journey and it didn’t work out the first time, innovation-sparking exercises like Five Whys can help you hit the reset button. By questioning what you think the problem is (five times in the case of the five whys), and then listen, reflect and respond with humility, curiosity and wonder, you are taking the necessary steps to bounce back.
Once you’ve unearthed the root causes of what went wrong, you can start fresh. (And if you need more ideas to jump start your brainstorming, we’ve curated and contributed some of our favorite innovation activities like Five Whys on thinkfwd.co.)
Get back to it. Ideas are nothing without execution!
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
~ T.S. Eliot
See, I told you old T.S. would resurface… this time with sage advice about how to get you back on track.
And, in a lot of ways, it is a track. Doing great creative work, like moving around a racetrack, is circular. Each cycle around builds momentum and also meets with friction. (Seeing a creative “flop” as a bit of inevitable friction is better than using the other “f” word: failure.) As a huge fan of Jim Collins’ Flywheel Model from his book, Good to Great, I like to think about how hard work is what moves a flywheel, slowly at first, then faster and faster until finally — a breakthrough! What was the heavy weight of challenges gives way to opportunities that get you to the right creative execution and drives your idea across the finish line.
For creatives who are on deadlines and pressed for time to ship, this is not a marathon. This is a sprint — quite literally, a design sprint. Rapid ideation and iteration don’t give you time to wallow in past missteps. It’s a collaborative, design-driven process that helps you overcome objections and fail faster so you can accelerate to approval.
Now when your creative idea falls flat, you’ve got the tools necessary to pump yourself back up. And while there may not be a scrap of your earlier effort to use as a launching pad, you’ve got a new jumping off point that can lead you in an even better direction. So stop fretting about flopping, and get on with flipping the switch for the next, right idea.