Agency Growth Tips 13/21: Let them make mistakes.

Published 06.03.2019

I can’t believe it’s article 13 of my FREE #AgencyGrowthTips – and more so, I can’t believe some of the incredible feedback I am getting. It means a lot.

It’s lonely business running an agency, an agency team or working in our industry – that industry being the agency business, nothing I write is specifically for creative agencies, although, largely, that’s my sweet spot. I am T shaped. Broad knowledge base, specialist in creative and digital agencies and all things creative, brand and strategy.

If you’d like to know a little more about me and why I am writing this series of articles, check out the preamble of article 1/21… Create value. Not things.

An aside: Back to T-shaped people. There are three types of colleague – three shapes of employee… I am a T.

There is the T.

The I (i).

And the flat _

I only recommend T’s generally – people who have a good grip on a lot of subjects, but a super power, specialism or depth of knowledge in one area. And all rounder as such, because they have the depth in one or two areas.

The you have the I(i)’s – single subject specialists – usually brilliant in tech, or technical disciplines. Pretty difficult to fit into an organisation elsewhere unless you’re big. Not an all rounder.

Then you have the flats. Know a bit about a lot. T’s and I’s are great. In my opinion, unless they are capable of learning, in a role that perfectly suits them – or bring some other kind of magic to the business then they’re often not agency type folk.

I aways aimed to recruit T’s. And still do, even in technical disciplines. 

On to today’s subject matter… about giving people a chance to make mistakes.

Dyslexia warning. I can’t splel well. 

Let’s do it.

Agency Growth Tips #13/21: Let them get it wrong.

There’s a phrase I hate seeing. Fail fast.

I don’t hate it because its wrong. I hate it because of all the people that swoop on it and challenge it. I get it – it’s not great to aim to fail. But let’s unpick it.

Letting people fail is a new fangled way that our parents used to bring us up. They sometimes let us fall over and get a grazed knee. So we knew not to do whatever it was we did again. They’d let us use a knife and fork and get food all over our faces. They’d let us play sport and not win.

Imagine a life where you didn’t make mistakes – what would we learn. I am by know means perfect. Ask anyone, quite the opposite. But I’ve learnt from my mistakes over the years, professionally and personally. Each time making adjustments, not going exactly the same thing again (in the main).

The principle is not new, and if you’re one of those folks who say ‘failing fast is bullshit’ your black and white view of the world is not the same as mine.

And I’ve said, we learn by making mistakes. And if you make a mistake it’s the same as getting something wrong, in Silicon Valley speak, that’s failing.

And it’s just a word. When people say it, they don’t mean you should aim to fail. They mean you should be prepared to take risks and that means you may fail. Or it wouldn’t have been a risk at all.

And the bit that is 100% right… it’s always and obviously better to fail fast than fail slowly.

Failing slowly is bloody painful. I’ve done it. Not professionally, but personally. But it’s the same thing. Same principal.

In this piece I am talking to leaders – agency owners, management, anyone running a team or in fact anyone that wants to get anywhere in this business.

Admit it to yourself if not me, sometime in your career, you fucked up. Didn’t you? Maybe you got away with it. Maybe not. But it changed you. You took something from that mistake. A lesson. A fear. Some knowledge. Some insight about you and your processes.

There was something to take away from it. There always is.

It takes a village to be a great agency.

You may not all get on… as much as that would be amazing, it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to like everyone. But as a group, to thrive you have to coexist in a positive manner – each contributing, doing their bit, owning their bit and doing so positively. Not being an arsehole about it. See 4/21 Fire arseholes.

Great teams win out over individual talents, most of the time.

And great teams trust each other. Because they know they are there for each other and will try their best. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be part of a great team… I’ve been part of some great teams. And I’ve been a spanner in the works at times too – we’ll come on to that.

To trust people, you have to give them freedom, space, responsibility and resources. You have to give them the chance to succeed. And accept there is equally a chance they will make mistakes. In fact, it’s guaranteed.

In a positive environment, mistakes get caught early. In well managed environments, there are checks and balances and mitigate the potential fall out or impact. You learn. People are accountable. They don’t dodge bullets, but collaboratively the problems are fixed. People grow.

In negative environments mistakes get missed. Hidden. They turn in toxic messes. Shit gets thrown around. People get blamed. Things get blown out of proportion. Things get worse. Silos are built. People hunker down. Life gets worse. Tension grows.

Hands up. I am proud of having run positive environments… but at times, I contributed to negative ones. So I have learnt.

How? Recognising the mistake. And doing something about it.

None of us want anyone to make a mistake. Certainly not the person making it, most of all. But they are guaranteed. It’s what we do about them that matters.

There’s another consequence of not giving people the space and freedom to make mistakes.

And that’s strangling the business. Whether you call it micro-managing. Ego. Or self-important. Disrespect. Or fear. If you as a leader have to meddle, fiddle, touch or critique everything a number of very negative things happen. At times I did it. I sometimes let me own fears overtake my judgements… but I pushed myself to change… to improve.

I was never a brilliant leader. But I really tried hard. I’m human. And I did my best. And that’s all anyone can ask of anyone, especially ourselves.

In strangling a business, first of all you demotivate people. Usually emotional people, in this industry that need some sense of freedom and see being micromanaged as a sign they are not good enough. What a horrible outcome all round.

You also slow the business down… you can’t be everywhere. It’s ok as a team of 5. Maybe 25. But not 50. And what about 100? 200? 300? It’s impossible. But some try. And they strangle their business. I’ve been guilty of this too. And I had to promote the people I trusted and employ some talented people I couldn’t really afford (article to follow on this very point) to give me the confidence to let go.

And I watched these talented people go through the same experience, of letting go and giving their teams space and freedom.

And we thrived.

As you get bigger, mistakes feel scarier. They have bigger consequences. You’re doing bigger things. But the principal remains the same. If you have good people, you have to trust them (yes – intervene when needed, guide, support, communicate regularly). It’s guaranteed they will make a mistake here and there.

They’re human. So are you.

Remember it’s very rare that a mistake can’t be fixed. It’s unprofessionalism that you lose clients over. Someone once told me for every 100 decisions that we make, there’s 100 chances that they’re wrong. Imaging in fear of that. And some leaders do. And it makes them and their teams miserable.

It’s not worth it. People make better calls than that. At it’s most primal it’s called the survival instinct. People do not want to make mistakes. They’ll do their best. And if you’ve built a good team, and a good team ethic – you’ll do more than ok. And if you’re team isn’t good enough to do it on their own, reflect on that. Is it you or them? Self-reflection is the key to growth.

And in the same way, it ok to make your own mistakes. At any stage of your career. Learn from them. The one you shouldn’t make, is making your life harder than it needs to be. And that’s easily done if you don’t give people freedom and autonomy.

Surround yourself with great people. Guide them. Give them responsibility. Celebrate successes. Discuss mistakes. Solve them together where you can. Discuss what happened and what someone could have done differently. These things are all ok.

Perfection is a fools pursuit.

I have often chased it. The only guarantee is that you will fall short. Your expectations of self and others must be achievable. They have to be fair. And when they are you’ll get far closer to perfect than you would otherwise. Although – you’ll never, ever reach it.

I was once told by an MD he won’t apologise to his staff, because he was told it made him look weak. Absolute bollocks.

If you fuck up. Apologise. You’re human. Be as professional as you can – but be you. And don’t hold higher expectations of yourself or anyone than are reasonable. The secret to happiness is acceptance of what is and reasonable expectations of people, places and things.

Life doesn’t need to be a battle with anyone. Least of all yourself.

Critically there’s another costs to micromanaging, meddling and feeling like you have to part of everything. It tells a terrible story to the team. But there’s a personal costs to you

It will damage you. You cannot keep up with everything alway. You cannot be the best you if you’re over stretched.

You’ll make plans, make the big calls, throw in the big ideas… and they won’t all be right. You can’t always win. But more often, with confidence and support, people do tend to fly. Businesses grow. Fast. Team last longer.

Things will be better.

Giving people freedom to succeed or fail (with all the right checks and balances), will give you freedom too.

We’re all human. You too.