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The best education comes from mistakes – so why do we allow a climate of blame culture?

April 9, 2010
Image of the Ariel 3 - a large mistake for BSA

A mistake from start to finish? The Ariel 3 from BSA ignored advice from the original designers resulting in machines which failed with the customers. Little surprise, really, even the marketing strapline was uncertain: "Here it is. Whatever it is"...

It is said that an expert could be defined as someone who has made more mistakes in a particular niche area than anyone else. Think about it, we can only learn from mistakes since the promotion of the excellent rarely results in challenges to the business paradigm.

Senior marketers intuitively know what will work because they have been burned by their mistakes: the website that went over budget; the catalogue that was mailed out without the order form; the brochure which was littered with typographical errors; the mailing that was sent to the opt-out list. They can then pass on these lessons to their team and build a knowledge bank of excellence.

Senior business executives on the other hand often talk in the language of success. They talk about growing profits; about creating customer satisfaction; about having a motivated team. And they criticise underperformance. Indeed, few companies look at business challenges as a learning process, rather they look at an executive’s failure to overcome the challenges as a fault in their genetic makeup. Executives are accused of “not being able to take the pressure”, of “burnout”, of “not delivering”.

But mistakes must be made and accepted as corporate culture. It is better for a senior executive to say “I can see you really tried hard to overcome that” than say “you failed”.  But executives prefer the latter approach because they need to please their own superiors – the investors and shareholders. And the result for the employee is a lack of self belief, a crisis moment, a potential breakdown.

This form of management madness is unacceptable and fails every time to deliver success. It only delivers staff churn, staff uncertainty and worse financial results.

Businesses need to create a “mistakes memory bank” and to celebrate mistakes as a way of avoiding problems in the future. In the marketing team, key staff need to be retained so that corporate mistakes are in the corporate neurology but data also needs to be retained for individual campaigns:

  • Response rates
  • Campaign ROIs
  • Notes on campaigns – what worked and what didn’t
  • Test results – A/B splits; premia; lists; pack elements; creative etc
  • Data analysis
  • Database cleanliness
  • Revenue per campaign
  • Cost per order
  • Repeat purchasers
  • Lapsed and cancelled analysis
  • Marketing analysis by type (DM, Telemarketing, email etc)

As we build data of our successes and failures we encourage an environment of learning, of shared responsibility and, bizarrely you may think, improved results.

In today’s increasingly competitive world, mistakes are crucial to success. But this is not about making mistakes and tolerating it – it’s about making mistakes and learning from them. There’s a subtle difference: one is complacent, the other is world-changing.

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