I recently had the chance to interview Nancy Duarte. She’s the New York Times best-selling author of two amazing books about storytelling, Slide:ology and Resonate. She also runs a design firm and helps massive clients like Pepsi, Cisco and Twitter tell their stories.
During the interview, she said something about failure and creativity that was really powerful.
For years, we’ve all talked about the need to “think outside the box” and “push the envelope.” We all have brainstorm meetings where people say, “There are no bad ideas.” Those are fun things to say, but usually they’re just empty words. I’ve had lots of jobs where someone will say, “We need fresh thinking on this. We’ve got to really push the limits on this project.” Then we’d end up creating something that was 2 degrees away from what we created during the previous project.
Which is understandable. Sometimes when you try to think outside the box, people pipe up and say, “Nobody does things that way.” Or our own internal voice of doubt will get loud and say, “That’s too edgy. Dial that idea back a few notches.”
So we water down our projects and our dreams until they’re only one shade different from the previous version. And even though they’re a little boring, at least we didn’t get in trouble. We didn’t fail and get called out.
But that process creates really dull work. Recognizing that, some organizations and companies have tried to fix that problem by giving people “permission to fail.” Which is a great start, but for Nancy Duarte, that approach didn’t go far enough. She knew, just like you know, that even if someone gives you the “permission to fail,” you’ll hold back a little.
Maybe they didn’t really mean fail. Maybe my boss’ definition of fail is “A-“ and mine is “D-”and if I embrace the permission to fail and then actually do, I’ll feel the full wrath of the distance between our two definitions
So we hold back a little, we still play it a little safe, which is why Duarte took things a step further.
She doesn’t just give her team permission to fail. She gives them the order to. When they work on a project for a client, they create a number of presentations that are right in line with the creative brief. They brilliantly and beautifully answer every need of the client. And then, they create a presentation that the client would never go for. They purposely and deliberately break all the rules. They throw out the brief and try something the client would want to leg sweep if it they encountered it in a dark alley.
Not because they’ve been given permission to fail, but because they’ve been tasked with failing. It wasn’t just a soft invitation. It was a direct order. But something surprising happened when they approached projects that way.
Clients started loving the concept that broke all the rules. They started embracing the “failure” concepts. Which turned out not to be failures at all.
Which makes sense when you think about it. Working on something that matters to you requires great bravery. Especially if you’ve been thinking about it for a long time. We put tremendous pressure on ourselves to “get it right” when we actually work on our dreams. Like a little girl who becomes a bridezilla because she dreamed of getting married since she was 6 and wants every detail to be perfect, we want things to be perfect. And failure is often not an option. But that’s the wrong approach.
Love your dream enough to give it room to fail and improve.
Love your dream enough to give it permission not to be perfect.
Love your dream enough to task yourself with some failure.
Like Nancy Duarte’s design team, you just might be surprised how often you succeed when it’s really OK that you fail.
Have you ever worked on a team where failure was tolerated or even encouraged as part of the design process?