Organizational transformation

Successful Failure

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Designers need to focus more on being something to those we know, rather than trying to be someone for those we don't.
  • Most work comes from people that know you rather than have just heard of you.
  • If design is about emotional connection, then those with the closest connections to you have the best chance of really knowing your work and potential.

I went to see Rick Valicenti speak the other earlier this month at the Corcoran. In addition, to putting out a show with the energy of a curiously gifted fifth grader, he talked about one thing that I don’t hear about so often – failure.

He was speaking with reference to RFPs (Requests for Proposals) and that he was on a winless 0-for-3 streak. His point as I recall was that as designers maybe we need to focus more on being something to those we know, rather than trying to be someone for those we don't. He highlighted that most of his work comes from people that know him rather than have just heard of him. I'm not sure if I'm completely on board with his take, but I understood his point. If design is about emotional connection, then those with the closest connections to you have the best chance of really knowing your work and potential.

Everyone kind of chuckled about his being so frank about the subject. I guess it’s a little easier to talk about failure when you have an AIGA Medal as part of your office accoutrement. I, too, had a little bit of a chuckle at the time. But a late call on a recent Friday, kind of took a little of the fun out of it.

The call was in relation to and RFP we had put together for a relatively large rebranding project. We put together a compelling proposal that they “loved”. We made the list of finalist. We interviewed with clarity, honesty and energy. But in the end we didn’t get the work.

It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with "failure". But after Rick’s talk, I was definitely in a more in touch with being relaxed about it. Afterall, we weren’t 0-for-3. But how would I make sure we didn’t get there? As I thought about it, I realized there a number of things that were important to failing well. Here's my top five.

Debrief quickly

Our memories tend to shift, so I find it useful to jot down notes as soon as your out of the meeting, so that you have some kind of “raw” data for later on. If possible talk with the potential and find out as much as you can. Odds are they will probably be overly nice, so you'll need to read between the lines a bit here.

Take an objective viewpoint

I usually then take a couple of days to digest the meeting and start breaking it down into more logical, as opposed to emotional, components. Here is where I start adding to my initial notes.

Present solutions not just opinions

Once I think I have a pretty good picture of how the meeting went and for what reasons, I start putting together a list of all things I think could be done better next time. Some of them may not be practical, but it all gets listed. If other people are involved, it’s after this part is completed that we have our group debrief.

Create a game plan to deal with each issue

After all of the potential solutions are on the table, it becomes easier to see what will work and what won’t. The goal here is to have a way to move forward that overcomes any of the perceived problem spots. At its best, this process will allow you to see other things on the horizon as well.

Give yourself time to work in new things

The last part is making sure that everyone is clear on how things should move forward and then giving yourself enough time to actually implement them. It’s possible that there’s enough skill on your side to get through the whole thing better than you did last time extemporaneously, but what you want to do is really nail it.

Of course at the end of the day, this all doesn’t mean we’ll get the next job. But we’ll at least be making forward progress.

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