A store sign about success and failure

How do you recover from dismal failure ?

founder experience leadership pitching Feb 01, 2022

We live in a world where we are encouraged to make mistakes. Having the freedom to make errors and the courage to admit them is fundamental to our learning process. Just as there can be no story without conflict for the hero to struggle against, without failure there can be no personal progress or evolution of our businesses. For it is failure that forces us to adapt. All this will be of little comfort to Padraig Harrington, Europe’s Ryder Cup team and the millions of European golf fans who watched uncomfortably as Team America handed out a thrashing. People had waited three years for this and yet the contest was effectively over within hours. Records were broken (the biggest ever margin of victory), tears shed in public mea culpas, and, no doubt, various Ryder Cup careers were brought to a bloody end. Only a brave man would predict seeing Paul Casey, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter in risibly unfashionable blue and gold starred trousers again.

The prospects for Team Europe in two years’ time do not look good. It will be hard to draw the correct conclusions from such a total, emotionally devastating wreck. Already there has been much media speculation about the absence of European fans, the awful behaviour of the natives, and the timing, number and deployment of the captains’ picks. The Americans played better on the day and edged matches that were ‘closer than the score suggested’. These are all true and were contributing factors. But there are more significant forces at work here. One is cyclical, as the USA ushered in a new generation of world-beating talent who can perform in this format. Another is structural: the gulf in talent pools between the two continents has rarely been wider. A third is personal. Despite a brilliant team spirit, various Europeans failed to perform and went down meekly. For professional sportsmen, many proud veterans of previous cups, this is hard to admit. Hats off to Rory McIlroy for taking responsibility.

From time to time, disaster does strike. It is inescapable, such is our lack of control over the forces that determine our fate. And whilst failure is a useful learning experience, it should not be embraced too much. There is a limit to how much failure we can withstand. And with every cataclysm, there is an immediate danger that we will compound its effects by not doing what failure is designed to do: teach us lessons that change our behaviour to prevent it from reoccurring.

We can be confident that there will be robust review of the European Ryder Cup debacle. Is the same true in your business, when it makes mistakes?

We grew a digital agency for many years. Pitching is the lifeblood of agencies. You can’t survive unless you learn how to win. But you also have to learn how to lose. We were good at that. Like everyone involved in unsuccessful pitches, we had a long list of possible causal factors. Enemy action was the first candidate. The client didn’t know what they wanted. There were caught up in company politics. They never had any intention of changing agencies. We were extras invited by purchasing to make the process seem more fair. Clients were hard to please, being difficult or suffering from myopic marketing vision. Some had secret relationships with rival agencies that exerted undue influence. Every now and then we might admit that we were beaten in a fair fight, and we lost to a superior pitch. If the reason for failure wasn’t obvious, then we blamed it on price. We were too expensive. And if that wasn’t the case, we’d blame it on chance. We were unlucky. It was never meant to be.

We did all this to keep things professional. To avoid asking the difficult questions that might disrupt the cohesive harmony that was instrumental to our agency’s effective operation. We tried to compartmentalise the problem, closing all the other hatches to prevent the fire spreading. Moreover, you invest time and money in pitches, so who wants to invest even more into a losing cause? When there is so much business to be won, who cares if you don’t win every one? For every pitch we lost we were winning more, so what was the problem?

The problem was we weren’t learning. We were pretending to learn or worse, whitewashing. Pitches are not professional. They are personal. They are an affirmation or rejection of not just the company, but the individuals involved. Their ideas, their capabilities and ability to present themselves as people that are desirable to work with. In attempting to explain away every failure as a near miss, we were in danger of becoming delusional. And so it took us a far longer than it should have done to learn how to become very good at losing. Only when we mastered this dark art, did we become better at not losing (which is also known as winning).

Every agency tracks their win/loss ratio. This is one of the worst metrics ever invented as it over-simplifies tremendously complex phenomena, creating a false sense of confidence when none may be justifiable. You need to know why you are winning and why you are losing. You have to invest more time in doing win/loss reviews. And they need to be rigorous, interrogating the interplay of every dynamic. When you do, you’ll see that there are different kinds of failure, and hardly any of them involve chance, enemy action or pricing.

There are what can be called misfires, pitches that you should have won but didn’t. These are the bitterest defeats. Rather than explaining away the defeat, you need to ask your team this simple question: why weren’t we good enough this time?  Did you need better strategy? Ideas? Creative? A stronger team? More theatre? Imagine Dave Brailsford, the cycling guru and master of incremental improvement was in the room. How would you construct a list of things to optimise? When you have this, codify the learning and share it, ideally training staff, practicing your pitches and testing them against your new list of success factors.  

Some failures are fumbles. They were lost because of self-inflicted wounds, and can only be attributed to mistakes, mis-readings or incompetence. This last word is a tough one, but is correct. Some people are not competent within the cauldron of a competitive pitch. Reviews into these failures are much harder as they ask very difficult questions of individuals. It’s OK though, because they will be feeling terrible anyway, and to have a problem acknowledged means you can do something about it, and give them more support to perform better next time. It is better than everyone thinking or knowing and making every effort not to speak about it. If those affected aren’t feeling the pain, then you’ve learnt something else valuable as well: some people should not be let in front of clients.

A third category of failure relates to deeper, underlying causes. These are the most troubling for any founder, but they are the ones you have to resolve if you hope to eventually succeed. There may be something cyclical: maybe you have a cohort of team members who need freshening up, to inject some new faces, energy and ideas. Maybe you need more diversity or everyone is just tired from all the constant pitching and needs a break. There might be a structural issue, something in your business that is working against you. Politics and personal rivalries fall into this camp. As soon as our agency was acquired by DraftFCB, we learned that they had lost Johnson & Johnson, a client they had serviced for 57 years and built their network for. This was due entirely to internal internecine powerplays that erupted into open warfare. Oops. But there could be a other reasons. Maybe you are missing a layer of seniority. Teams might not have enough inter-disciplinary expertise. Or you might not be getting your big hitters in the room often enough, because they are busy elsewhere. You need to know the root causes if you are to find solutions.

Any win/loss review should never be a strictly internal inquest. The most important voice is that of the client or customer who rejected you. Most people are willing to share their views and give feedback. You need to have the courage to ask for it. Don’t leave it to the account lead or pitch lead – the problem may have been with them, and politeness dictates that you will never learn the truth. Instead, get someone else in your leadership team to ask. Invest in a call or, even better, a face-to-face meeting. Because this will help you to learn how to lose brilliantly, capturing insights you can take into every future pitch. It makes a very positive impression on clients, showing you are serious about keeping them happy. And it might even set up the next pitch, if you find that you misunderstood the client’s needs (probably because they didn’t know them when they wrote the brief).  

So the next time you experience cataclysmic failure, dismal performance or even mild disappointment, ask yourself how will you try to learn from it? Will you compartmentalise the problem? Or will you ‘open the hatches’ and let the cleansing fire rage, tempering your staff and your business, to make them stronger than ever?  


Further watching (something less painful):



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