'The Bad Idea Illuminates Where the Great Idea Is' - Encouraging Failure

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"[Director Sam] Mendes is known for creating 'a safe room' for rehearsals. 'People are free to have a bad idea. Frequently the bad idea illuminates where the great idea is,' [producer Scott] Rudin said. 'Sam makes the room embracing, warm.  He's very open about what he perceives to be his own mistakes. If he doesn't know something, he's entirely comfortable asking the questions. That makes people feel incredibly well protected.'"
—A recent New Yorker profile by John Lahr on award-winning theater and film director (Oscar winner for American Beauty) Sam Mendes.

Where had I heard that before? Oh yeah, from Elizabeth Petersen of Simplify Compliance. "Have a think tank where you can bring people to brainstorm. Every person has ideas but you need to coax them out. I like to brainstorm on the fly. I have introverts [on staff], and they need to be encouraged. To have a structured agenda is a great way to get people talking. Make sure you're making eye contact with people even if you think [what they're saying] is a bad idea."

Petersen (pictured) will moderate a Women in Media: Conversations in the Field keynote panel of Meg Hargreaves, managing director, corporate development, FiscalNote; Lucretia Lyons, president, Business Valuation Resources; and Christine Shaw, managing director and SVP, B2B, FUTURE, at our upcoming BIMS conference. 

"One of the biggest barriers to innovation is fear of failure," Petersen said. "The information industry is changing so rapidly and there are so many unknowns. Even the most thoroughly researched product may not gain market traction. The key to developing a humming new product development engine is to be comfortable with risk and to set measurable (and transparent) benchmarks for product success."

More and more, I hear top people in our industry speaking about the importance of encouraging staff to freely toss out ideas and giving them room to, yes, fail. "You have to have the ability to put yourself out there and be willing to fail," said Heather Farley, COO of Access Intelligence. "Fail fast and fail forward is my favorite motto."

Personally, I've been in many meetings where people are just critical and defensive, and you can sense that it's not an atmosphere that will inspire new ideas. So making a room "embracing" and "warm" makes total sense.

"Create a culture to build trust and collaboration, and breaking down silos..." Tim Hartman, CEO of Government Executive Media Group, told us at SIPA Annual in June. "Think ambitious experiments and trust each other. If you look around and don't see that, you have a problem."

Failures can and should be learned from. There's even a Museum of Failure in Sweden with a branch now in Hollywood. "I'm very open talking about my failures," said Petersen, who has had far more successes. "About nine years ago I had a great product idea, and I did a ton of customer research, and everybody said they would buy it" for a high price. But when the product emerged, they said they'd pay about $99.

"So we don't ask them [if they would buy it anymore]. We ask, 'What budget do you have available? How are you spending it right now? How are decisions made?' And also, when I'm talking to partners and vendors, I try to slide this in there: 'How are purchasing decisions made for your product?'"

In their session a few years ago on New Rules for Product Development and Time to Market, Molly Lindblom, principal, Business Transformations, and David Foster, CEO, Business Valuation Resources, wrote: "The goal is to fail cheap, fail fast and fail forward... It's about getting quick feedback from your customers and segments... When you invalidate an assumption, say you find out that you completely mischaracterized a customer segment, you walk away with those insights and gems that can point you in the right direction."

"It comes back to your leadership team," said Julian Rose, director and co-founder of CW Research Ltd. "You need an enabling culture that allows for failure. We're maybe not as tolerant of failure in the UK as you are here."

As the director of big-money projects, Mendes, also from the UK, has good reason not to be as tolerant of failure. But in his "safe room," it's more about coaxing out great performances. "I will find out what the actors need," he said. "My language to each of them has to suit their brain."

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…