Never work with animals or 18th century mailcoaches: the importance of stories of failure

18th century Royal Mail coach in Science Museum I’ve been thinking about stories a lot lately, particularly stories of failure. Telling stories of failure is hugely important for many reasons – not least because it resonates with audiences that have all, let’s face it, screwed up in some way or another in the past. Told in organisations, failure stories build innovation culture by telling employees that it’s ok to experiment, to get things wrong and to fail occasionally. And they counterbalance the pervading myth of the solo entrepreneur or innovator changing the world single-handedly – or demonstrate that sometimes the only way to avoid failure is to enlist help.

I’ll be publishing more about storytelling over the coming month as I develop a series of workshops on the subject, but as a little hors d’oeuvre in the meantime, here is my own story of failure. It involves antique mailcoaches, commuter traffic and horses (but rest assured no people or animals were permanently harmed as a result of my inadequacies.)

PR in the 90s

One of my first proper jobs after university was for a PR agency that shall remain nameless to protect the guilty. (If you want to know what PR in the 90s was like, you can’t beat this post from Mark Perkins. It made me laugh till I cried.) The PR agency had secured a prestigious contract with a well-known department store managing the launch of nine new stores in various far-flung parts of the country. As the most junior of junior people on the account, my life inevitably became a ceaseless round of ordering branded balloons and ribbons, organising photocalls (the Big M picture was a proud part of my portfolio for years), and writing endless press releases for the local media.

The toughest part of the job was finding something unique and special about each store and working it in to the opening event, so when we found that one store was built on the site of a famous coaching inn, we thought we’d struck gold. ‘Wouldn’t it be great,’ we thought in a particularly creative brainstorming session, ‘if the local dignitaries opening the store could arrive in an 18th century mail coach?’.

Ha ha. Guess who was tasked with finding an 18th century mailcoach? Of course it was. I forget how I actually tracked down one of the only remaining horse drawn mailcoaches in the country (how DID we do things before the internet?) but track it down I did, and booked its owner to drive our VIPs on the day in question. What a marvellous photocall this was going to be – front page of the local press was within our grasp. Well done me.

Horses and rush hour traffic might not mix

Being somewhat risk averse, however, we did wonder whether driving a coach and four through rush hour traffic in a town not a million miles from the M25 was a sensible thing to do. I was therefore tasked with contacting the local police force to see if they would provide some sort of escort, and explained the plans to a somewhat astonished traffic policeman at local police HQ. Once he’d finished laughing, he said that as our driver had a license to drive horses on the public highway he couldn’t stop us, but that it was entirely at our own risk, and that public funds simply wouldn’t stretch to providing an escort. While our dignitaries were obviously Very Important, they weren’t Very Important Enough. ‘Perhaps’, he suggested, ‘you should check that your coach driver is absolutely confident about driving his horses through hordes of commuter traffic.’

Sensible advice. So I checked, and this is where the whole plan fell apart. As a giddy young thing almost certainly thinking about shoes or beer rather than the job in hand, I was probably less tactful about the question than I might have been. Or maybe I was perfectly tactful, but caught our coach driver on a bad day: we will never know, as I have completely forgotten how I phrased the question. In any event, probably the best way of describing what happened next is that our coach driver took Extreme Umbrage. Before I could grasp what was happening, the phone had gone down and he had pulled out of the whole event. Our carefully laid plans were reduced to naught mere days before they were due to go ahead: press releases issued, photographers lined up, the whole nine yards.

What does a Junior Junior Account Executive do when she has single-handedly ruined a carefully planned event for a leading department store, thus jeopardising the entire contract? I considered fleeing via the fire escape and making a new life under an assumed name in Darkest Peru, but in the end I did the only thing I could do: I sat under my desk and cried. Which is where the deputy MD found me an hour or so later, and made polite enquiries as to the cause of my distress.

In which it all ends well

I have to confess to cheating a little on this tale of failure, as in the end it all worked out alright. It took about two days and the combined might of the PR agency’s Deputy MD and the leading department store’s Director of Communications to soothe the coach driver’s ruffled feathers (what on EARTH did I say to him?) but he did eventually agree to carry on with the booking. On the day the sun shone, the crowds gathered, I think even TV turned up, but I saw none of this. It had been deemed a Good Idea that I didn’t come along in case I offended someone else – or the coach driver again! –  so I stayed in the office gloomily sticking photographs to press releases while the coach driver and his horses negotiated the traffic without a hitch.

And what did I learn from this formative experience? I learned the following valuable lessons:

  • On the whole, people don’t like it when you question their professional skills
  • Never underestimate people’s potential to be divas, especially if they control an asset they know to be irreplaceable. There weren’t many 18th century mailcoaches around in those days. There are probably even fewer now.
  • Similarly, structuring an entire strategy around a rare and irreplaceable asset that you don’t control is quite a big risk
  • Sitting under your desk and crying, while an attractive course of action in the short term, won’t get you very far in the longer term. It’s generally best to escalate problems sooner rather than later.
  • And finally with failure, as with success, it’s all about the team. If you work together you can solve or find a way around most problems in the end.