Failure Wouldn’t Be So Bad if We Didn’t Take It Personally

“I’d rather forego being a proven success in exchange for never being proven a failure.” —a PR agency CEO, as told to Cision Chief Insight Officer Mark Weiner

Communications measurement, as an industry, a process, and a profession, is stuck with an unfortunate and counter-productive name. To those of us who work in communications measurement, “measurement,” means a beneficial process of improvement. But to many people who do the actual work of PR, and whose work is measured by communications measurement, it means a risk of being labeled a failure. As a result, there is often great resistance to implementing communications measurement programs.

Part of the cause of this difficulty is built into the word “measurement.” “Measurement” means “comparison to a standard.” Did it meet the standard or did it fail to meet the standard? So, by using the word “measurement” we signal that we operate with a succeed-or-fail framework. And so the natural human resistance to being seen as a failure is built right into the name of the process.

Wouldn’t it be easier to promote communications measurement if we called it something less intimidating? And something more descriptive, too. Since, after all, “measurement” does not really describe what communications measurement does. Communications measurement is actually a process of improvement: find what works and doesn’t work and then make things better. Communications measurement is not—despite what its name says—simple measurement. It is the key to improvement! [Cue choir of angels.]

By the way, concern about “measurement” as an appropriate title for communications measurement is not a new thing. And for a number of good reasons. Here’s a discussion by Jim Macnamara, and here’s a discussion among several measurati. Outside the U.S. it’s often called “research, measurement, and evaluation.” That might even be worse, since “evaluation” sounds just as intimidating as “measurement.”

The theme of this issue of The Measurement Advisor is failure, so we are interested in the connection between communications measurement and the fear of failure. There is significant resistance to implementing communications measurement, because people don’t want to risk criticism. Cision’s Chief Insight Officer Mark Weiner has a great story about an encounter with a certain PR agency CEO, who said, “I’d rather forego being a proven success in exchange for never being proven a failure.” That’s some serious built-in bias against implementing communications measurement.

Of course nobody wants to fail; nobody likes to be seen making a error. Whether you are learning your ABCs, or doing PR, everybody wants a gold star. So perhaps we need a more benign and constructive way of thinking about communications measurement. Like that it is finding opportunities for improvement.

Just think what the communications measurement business would be like if more people happily embraced it as a system to generate improvement. Rather than shunned it as a system to expose failure. Suppose, instead of the communications measurement business, we were in the communications improvement business.

Failure is a good thing, when it leads to improvement

This was Darwin’s point about evolution, the inter-species version of “improve by learning what works and what doesn’t.” You can’t have survival of the fittest without non-survival of the un-fittest. For species to evolve, failure is just as important as success.

Just imagine if God ran evolution by way of measurement reports from all the species. She’d be up in heaven, looking over the charts, trying to figure out which species should survive and which shouldn’t. Of course, none of the species would want to admit failure. Remember the Irish Elk, those big deer that evolved the way-too-big antlers? Their dashboard would conclude, “We’re fine, no problem; the bigger the better!”

So, if God can constantly learn from failure, why is it so hard for us to?

Maybe it’s because “a failure” is often what you feel like in the face of results that show improvement is necessary. Aye, there’s the rub. Failure wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t take it so personally.

A lot of bad measurement techniques are at least partly motivated by fear of failure. Those impressively big numbers that arrive by way of impressions, multipliers, AVE, or EMV can be more than just self-aggrandizing exaggerations. They can function as protection against using more valid metrics that would be more accurate, but might be much more revealing.

How does one deal with the potential stigma of failure? Katie Paine says we should take “failure” right off the table, and instead talk about “succeeding less well.” Daphne Gray-Grant has some good suggestions over at her article on how to deal with writing criticism. Most of her advice has to do with understanding that what appears to be failure is actually an opportunity to improve. Sounds like an important lesson for communications measurement. If the communications measurement business could rebrand failure as the vital first step to improvement, people would be much more eager to measure.

If, right from the get go, the assumption was that nobody failed, they just learned to get better, then people could be proud and eager to share mistakes. (Kind of like Delahaye’s old Mistake of the Month Award.)

What’s needed for for measurement is to create what Doug Lemov calls “a culture of error”:

“The idea is that if [people] try to hide their errors from you, you have to work twice as hard to find them, but if they want you to see them… if you tacitly agree that uncovering error and fixing it is your shared task, a good, right, and just thing, well, then you are on your way.” —Doug Lemov

What a great idea! ∞

(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.)

About Author

Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg is the Editor of The Measurement Advisor. He has been editing and writing about measurement for over 20 years. He was the development and copy editor for "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, winner of the 2013 Terry McAdam Book Award.