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6th June 2011 Sara Lock

Do two wrongs make a right?

You’re a failure? Congratulations!

Anyone who has played a sport knows there comes a point when, if you want to achieve somethingBlog 13
magnificent, you need to ‘have a go’. I play cricket (well, a version of the game anyway) and as a batsman you’re supposed to go through a specific sequence when you come in to bat: ‘play yourself in’ and then gradually accumulate a few runs – nothing too fancy – just singles – unless you spot a bad ball. Before long though, depending on the situation, you will have to leave your comfort zone and try something more adventurous.

You could march down the wicket and hit the bowler ‘over the top’. It’s a risk, because you might decide to do this before the ball is bowled and you can’t be certain how it will be delivered.

Sorry if I’m losing you here, but the point is – you could carry on accumulating runs carefully without being out – but if you need to score runs quickly (in order to win) you will have to increase the odds. Greater success comes through taking a risk.

We’re taught to avoid mistakes. As Ken Robinson puts it, ‘there’s one right answer and it’s at the back of the book.’ (, 2006). There’s a good reason for this of course. It’s difficult to argue that 2+2 does not = 4 and if the alarm system doesn’t work when there’s a fire you’re in trouble.

But if we want to innovate, create or push the boundaries then we need to risk being wrong. In our sphere of work this is important. I mean, how ridiculous to think that thousands of people would enjoy seeing a mechanical elephant walk through London or that you could let people in for free and ask them to pay what they want or that you could write the lyrics for an opera using Twitter.

It’s not easy having a new idea and trying to carry it through. There’s opposition all around us, we might be shown to be stupid or perhaps, in these perilous times, failure might lead to us losing our job.

But as several commentators recently have shown, some of the best ideas require you to take a chance. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error’ gives the debate a slightly different twist by pointing out that we are often wrong when we think we are right (and vice versa).

The Big Picture

The point is surely about seeing the bigger picture, risking short term failure for long term gain. There seem to be two important elements involved in making this happen.

Firstly, you need to be operating in an environment which is supportive; one which does not seek every opportunity to chastise failure. We can’t all work for Google, but we can take note of their 20% principle or of Innocent Drinks’ creative approach, as outlined by Dan Germain at the AMA Conference in 2009.

Do you have a boss who supports you in trying out new things? Or do you encourage your team to provide fresh ways of thinking, new ways of doing things? It’s a risk because it means letting go and sacrificing a little control.

The second important element, which Schulz outlines so well, is that ultimately you must have an idea of whether you are being successful. Trying something different is wonderful and being wrong could be a step in the right direction, but this does not mean we should keep going with something that isn’t working for ever.

So, evaluation is essential. And when it comes to measuring our arts marketing, there’s no excuse, because we now have the tools at our disposal. This has been one of the most significant changes in our profession in the last 20 years. Did we really spend all those years devising ways of measuring how effective our direct mail was (this pre-occupied me for most of the 1990s)? Now we can do the same thing (or something very similar) at the push of a button. We don’t have to employ an expensive research company; we can do it ourselves. If you don’t know where to start, try the ADUK project. It’s straightforward and effective.

I will take a risk here and mention Kolb/Honey and Mumford’s Learning Cycle (a risk because you’re going to shout ‘cliche cliche cliche’ at me) but this model surely has validity because of the way it links together the process of learning: try something, reflect on its success and change what you do next time.

Leaving the comfort zone

The other side of the coin is continuing to do what you’ve always done, never leaving your comfort zone because you think that what you are doing works and always will work.

But imagine the careful batsman again and the inability to see the big picture. You could keep accumulating runs (it may look like you’re doing your job) but if you need 6 an over to win and you’re scoring 5 runs an over no matter how stylish and impressive your batting (how wonderful your website looks) you will lose (go out of business).

Don't get off the train Diane Ragsdale speaks of ‘never wasting a crisis’  as it is only usually when we enter a crisis we evaluate fundamentally what we are trying to do – it has to shock us out of our complacency. 

Apart from Diane Ragsdale, at the AMA conference  this year, there are also a couple of sessions which deal with the issue head on. Shelley Bernstein, from Brooklyn Museum, will be talking about ‘Learning from mistakes made as part of being an early adopter’ and Jane Donald from Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Peter Muir from Glasgow’s Concert Halls will be talking about ‘Learning from mistakes during a period of organisational change’.

Both sessions will be convened in a way that encourages people to share their own examples but what is said will not be explicitly repeated outside the room.

So, please feel free to come along and share your wrongdoings. I’m very much looking forward to sharing mine. I’ve got loads.

Jonathan Goodacre

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