Strive to Fail

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” – Mary Shelley

A post of mine from 2020 related the unfortunate story of the Vasa, a large and expensive naval ship that, unfortunately, was a spectacular failure on the same day as it launched. It is now housed in a purpose-built museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

This blog starts with a look at another Swedish institution: the Museum of Failure which opened in Helsingborg, Sweden in 2017 and has since had two temporary homes there in addition to “pop-up” sites in Los Angeles, Shanghai and Paris. The museum, as the name implies, is dedicated to celebrating the glorious failure of attempts to create new products and services. According to the museum’s website, “the majority of all innovation projects fail and… every item [showcased] provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation”. It’s well worth a visit and at the time of writing, the website includes many of the failed projects in the museum – it just requires an email address to access the collection. A few examples:

  • Nike Magneto – sunglasses without temples (the arms that extend behind your ears). They looked cool but required you to tape magnets to your head to hold them in place. Austin Carr wrote in Fast Company magazine (2013) that this was one idea where the concept was a lot better than the execution – and there’s nothing wrong with that, often you don’t know until you try
  • The IKEA “a.i.r.” inflatable sofa – a potentially great idea intended, according to another Fast Company magazine article, this time by IKEA’s own Stina Holmberg (2017), to reduce the use of raw materials by 85% and the transport volume by 90%. The problem: it used to deflate when in use, so was of limited value as a sofa, and it tended to blow around the room because it was so light
  • 3D TV – a well-intentioned attempt to enhance a viewing experience that ultimately suffered from issues both of supply and demand. Studios were not prepared to spend the extra money on producing a large quantity of 3D content, and viewers complained of headaches and feeling sick. A 2019 article by Brian Barrett for Wired described this “invention” as a case of trying to invent a market to avoid commoditisation without taking the necessary step of truly understanding and meeting customer needs.

The intention of the museum is not to mock, but to show that not every innovation attempt succeeds. As they state on their home page: “Innovation Needs Failure”!

The museum also includes products, services and businesses that will be familiar to readers of my books or my posts: the Ford Edsel, the Vasa, the Boeing 737 Max, Blockbuster. I haven’t reprised these here because they are a little different. They were failures of process within the organisation, not failure of genuine and well-intentioned attempts to do something new and different. Arguably, the 3D TV was also a process failure – a lack of understanding of what customers would need. But I bought one, mainly because I was interested to see if it would improve the experience when watching sports by making it easier to track the ball. I’m sorry to report that it didn’t, unfortunately – at least not enough to make it worth remembering to charge the special glasses needed, finding them after the kids had borrowed them, and actually putting up with the weight of wearing them for more than a few minutes at a time.

As entertaining as it is, the Museum of Failure represents just the tip of the iceberg. This is because most failures in innovation never make it to the market. As Thomas Edison once said: “I have not failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work”. Something that might be more familiar and more representative of your experience as an innovator is likely to be James Dyson’s story: building 5,000 prototype vacuum cleaners before he arrived at one that worked satisfactorily, as described in my first book. It’s an extreme example, but a good illustration of the hard graft that can be required to succeed.

Boston Dynamics is well known for its development of legged robots, designed for walking and climbing, and often representing quadrupedal (four-legged) animals including dogs and even bipedal (two-legged) robots that move in a similar way to real people. These robots are technological marvels, but they don’t always work as planned. Recognising this, in 2021 the company posted a blog that included a video in which its humanoid robots were shown trying, and spectacularly failing, to negotiate a parkour course while under test. The video is well worth watching if you don’t want to feel too bad about your own product development failures, and that’s the point. According to the post, “crashes and falls are an integral part of the development process” and the title of the post, “build it, break it, fix it”, has become a part of the company culture. Instead of avoiding failure, the engineers at Boston Dynamics are revelling in it and in how much they can learn from it.

Boston Dynamics has been funded by DARPA (the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and a related example of how failure can lead to success was covered by Daniel Yergin in his 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The New Map. In the book, he described how, at the start of the twenty-first century, DARPA ran a competition designed to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles by offering cash prizes. Their first “Grand Challenge” competition, held in 2004, required the winning vehicle to successfully negotiate a 142-mile-long course in the desert. The best team did not manage to cover even seven percent of the target distance! Yet, as Yergin wrote, the competition was not a failure. He quoted a DARPA official as saying: “the fresh thinking [the civilian teams] brought was the spark”, and it led directly to success. The following year, two hundred teams entered the competition, run this time on a 132-mile-long course in Nevada. Five teams successfully completed the course. It seems that it is often necessary to fail before you succeed. Every failure should be seen as an opportunity to get better.

Therefore, you must work hard to imbue your teams with the “right to fail”. I recall recently leading a team charged with development of a new product. Part of the plan, of course, was product testing and I pushed the team to try to find the limits of performance during said testing. They pushed back, “but we might break it!” I had to persuade them that was the point – you should try to break it, because that’s how you learn, and I’d rather it breaks here than it breaks once a customer has their hands on it. The failures are necessary steps on the innovation journey, and it’s best to get them behind you as quickly as possible.

In a 2019 blog, Dave Jarman wrote about how the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Bristol in England handles teaching innovation with the attendant risk of failure. He emphasised that the University has tried to “cultivate a learning environment within which students can fail without being academically penalised”. This is correct, and it is critical. If you want to successfully innovate, then in your own organisation you must create a similar environment – a culture – whereby failure is not punished but rewarded.

Breaking things doesn’t come naturally to engineers, so you must encourage them to do it.

Want to Know More?

The second volume of my book: Strategy and Innovation for a Changing World – Part 2: Sustainability Through Velocity is now available. The topics introduced in this blog are expanded on and covered in much more detail in Chapter 5: “Putting the Right Team Together.

References and Further Reading

Barrett, B. (2019, December 31). 3D TV Tells You Everything About This Decade’s Tech. https://www.wired.com/story/decade-in-review-3d-tv/

Carr, A. (2013, April 26). Why Nike Killed “Magneto”, Its Futuristic Eyewear Product. https://www.fastcompany.com/3006410/why-nike-killed-magneto-its-futuristic-eyewear-product

Hennick, C. (2021, August 25). Build It. Break It. Fix It. https://blog.bostondynamics.com/build-it-break-it-fix-it

Holmberg, S. (2017, September 14). Ikea’s Doomed Quest to Design a Couch You Can Carry in Your Hands. https://www.fastcompany.com/90138626/ikeas-doomed-quest-to-design-a-couch-you-can-carry

Innovation Needs Failure. (n.d.). https://museumoffailure.com

Jarman, D. (2019, October 2). How to Succeed at Failing. https://davejarman.co.uk/2019/10/02/how-to-succeed-at-failing/

Vasa History. (n.d.). https://www.vasamuseet.se/en/vasa-history/

Yergin, D. (2020). The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations. New York: Penguin Random House.

© 2022 J M Clegg Ltd

Image LGEPR, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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