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The Art of Failure

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When Andrew Mason, the former CEO of Groupon, sat down at his desk last Friday morning he probably only half guessed the impact that the resignation note he posted online would make beyond the social tech industry.

A far cry from the gushingly corporate full-page, open-letters published in many a global newspaper of late, his resignation and open admission of underperformance -- and ultimately failure -- was a refreshing interjection of modesty and humanity in an age where corporate communications are so frequently defined by consultant-speak, half-truths and distortion.

It reminded us that, when properly articulated, "failure" need not be the clarion call of a carefully honed communications strategy, but can the precondition to communicating a new story about a (seemingly new) organisation, outlining a new way of operating, encouraging external and internal audiences to reframe perceptions.

And an admirable combination of clarity, charm and humanity has provided Groupon -- whose reputation has been admittedly dogged by a toxic combination of hype, hope and hysteria, and early, unmediated, speculative investor confidence in the possibilities of social-led, digital enterprise -- with a platform from which to rebuild external (and internal) perceptions.

"I'm OK with having failed at this part of the journey," Andrew Mason wrote in his open memo, posted on the Groupon external blog. "If Groupon was Battletoads," he wrote, "it would be like I made it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on my first ever play through."

[Admittedly this foray into geekdom is a little obscure for my liking, but a quick Google will inform you that what Mason is trying to say is that his taking Groupon all the way from startup to IPO was either a colossal feat of genius or a haphazard miracle, depending on how charitably you want to interpret the metaphor.]

Such candour is rare in an age where shareholder or stakeholder expectation fuels an ubiquitously inhumane, robotic approach to corporate communication; CEOs fuse almost indelibly with drab Investor Relations brochures; they coincide with the corporate grey pantone that laces every last watermarked 'personalised' note inside the Christmas hamper, promising 'relentless focus on results in the coming four quarters' in much the same way as the Terminator might interact with a hostile interlocutor.

And one trait that too many corporates, and no more so that then their communicators, seem to share is the fear perpetuated by failure.

Failure haunts the corporate communicator, spiralling into nightmarish, absurdist scenes involving a call late on Friday night from a pack of investigative journalists, a flurry of tweets, a demeaning hashtag, a red-eyed, red-faced appearance on the Today Show, an untimely, ashamed and grovelling apology aired ad-nauseum on rolling news channels and an auto-tuned, mocking YouTube video which becomes an instant meme and is re-blogged around the world.

This fear is exhausting and completely unsustainable. In order to retain a sense of proportion (and a shred of sanity), corporate communicators must overhaul this paranoid, hysteric model in favour of a measured and compassionate one that accepts failure as an inevitable part of any human endeavour.

This is rendered even more necessary given the series of recent monumental failures that have impacted the legacy of the entire capital-led system, and the modes of corporate and political story telling that communicators have traditionally lent on in times good and bad.

From Lehman to Libor, we have seen the demise of traditional narratives framed by a teleological view of history -- that is, an historical narrative that seeks to identify effects framed by causes, dependent on predictable finalities and recognisable outputs justified by complex algorithms.

And this outmoded understanding of history has thrown traditional readings of reputation out of joint with those normally articulated by the communications industry. We are in the midst of a reputation crisis; in a digital age, corporate, political -- even personal -- identities are fragile, constantly evolving, prone to destruction in seconds.

The reputation crisis has been fuelled by an over investment -- literally and figuratively -- in a framework within which an organisation's corporate or political story can be defined by pre-identifable 'benchmarks,' 'touchpoints' or 'deliverables.' Organisations have been hoisted by their own petard, articulating corporate stories that centre on narrative trajectories based on 'key performance indicators' or outputs and models that attempts to frame a future shaped almost solely by the lexis of success, completion, consistency.

Such positions belie an almost fanatic idolatry of scientific and mathematical certainties, absolute truths defined by back-office financial algorithms and "professional rigour" over the inevitable invasion of humanity and its propensity for error.

It is in this sense that Andrew Mason's call to sanity and embrace of failure reframes the way in which organizations ought to deal with their inevitable deviation from unsustainable success-driven models of corporate behaviour.

"Fail, fail again, fail better," wrote the poet, novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett.

Against the rising tide of paranoid communicators and their 'relentlessly focused', ashen-faced leaders, nimble, innovative organisations will turn failures, mishaps and accidents into communications assets -- an opportunity to turn themselves inside out, welcome crowd-sourced and expert scrutiny, start afresh with new and innovative thinking.

And through this redemptive process, they and their leaders will find a surprisingly progressive public sphere accepting of those that assume responsibility and lead through action, intervention and transparency.

Everyone knows, after all, that very, very few ever make it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on their first ever play through.