Failure is the Mother of Invention
by Paul Sloane

In the 1950s the Jacuzzi brothers invented a whirlpool bath to treat people with arthritis. Although the product worked, it was a sales flop. Very few people in the target market, sufferers from arthritis, could afford the expensive bath. So the idea languished until they tried re-launching the same product for a different market - as a luxury item for the wealthy. It became a big success.

Very often the best way to test an idea is not to analyze it but to try it. The organization that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures but the chances are, it will reap some mighty successes too. By trying numerous initiatives we improve our chances that one of them will be a star. As Tom Kelley of IDEO puts it, 'Fail often to succeed sooner.'

Honda Motor Company entered the US market in 1959 with its range of low-powered motorcycles. It endured failure after failure as it learned the hard way that little motorcycles popular in the Tokyo suburbs were not well received on the wide open roads of the USA. They eventually brought out a range of high powered bikes that became very popular. Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda said, 'Many people dream of success. Success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. Success represents the 1 per cent of your work that results from the 99 per cent that is called failure.'

What makes Silicon Valley so successful as the engine of high-tech growth? It is the Darwinian process of failure. Author Mike Malone puts it like this, 'Outsiders think of Silicon Valley as a success, but it is, in truth, a graveyard. Failure is Silicon Valley's greatest strength. Every failed product or enterprise is a lesson stored in the collective memory. We don't stigmatize failure; we admire it. Venture Capitalists like to see a little failure in the résumés of entrepreneurs.'

In order to develop the concept of the benefits of failure, Penn State University has a course for engineering students called Failure 101. The students have to take risks and do experiments. The more failures they have, the sooner they can get an A grade!

Many great successes started out as failures. Columbus failed when he set out to find a new route to India. He found America instead (and because he thought it was India he called the natives Indians). Champagne was invented by a monk called Dom Perignon when a bottle of wine accidentally had a secondary fermentation. 3M invented glue that was a failure - it did not stick. But it became the basis for the Post-it note, which was a huge success.

Scientists at Pfizer tested a new drug called Viagra, to relieve high blood pressure. Men in the test group reported that it was a failure as regards high blood pressure but it had one beneficial side effect. Pfizer, the manufacturers, investigated the side effect and found that the drug had a dramatic effect on men's sexual vigor. Viagra became one of the most successful failures of all time.

Even if the failure does not lead directly to a success it can be seen as a step along the way. Edison's attitude to 'failure' is salutary. When asked why so many of his experiments failed he explained that they were not failures. Each time he had discovered a method that did not work.

Tom Watson Jr. was the legendary President of IBM who led them through the high-growth years when they were the most admired company in America. He encouraged what he called 'wild ducks', people with unconventional and disruptive ideas. On one occasion a Vice President who had lost the corporation $10m on an experiment which failed was called to Watson's office. The VP was expecting to be fired so he took his letter of resignation with him and presented it. Watson refused to accept it. 'Why would we want to lose you?' he said. 'We've just given you a $10m education.'

Another boss who welcomes failure is Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. According to his publisher John Brown, 'The secret of his success is his failures. He keeps opening things and a good many of them fail but he doesn't care. He keeps on going.'

In 1985 Coca Cola experimented by introducing 'New Coke' - a new flavour to replace 'Classic coke'. It had tested well in consumer test but it was a marketing disaster and flopped. Coca Cola had to eat humble pie and reintroduce Classic Coke. Did this great disaster do any long-term harm to Coca Cola - probably not. Did the senior managers and marketing professionals responsible for this failure all get fired? No, they did not. It was an experiment that failed but Coca Cola survived, learned and prospered. As Nietzsche put it, 'that which does not kill me makes me stronger.'

Bill Gates stood down as CEO of Microsoft so that he could focus more time and energy on strategic leadership of the company's development efforts. He took intense interest in Microsoft Research, the 600 person think-tank he set up in the early 1990s to push the envelope of software technology, user-interface design, speech recognition and computer graphics. As one of his colleagues put it, 'Bill isn't afraid of taking long-term chances. He understands that you have to try everything, because the real secret to innovation is failing fast.'

Tips for succeeding through failure:

  1. Recognise and communicate that when you give people freedom to succeed, you give them freedom to fail too.

  2. Distinguish between two kinds of failure - honourable failure where an honest attempt at something new or different has been tried unsuccessfully and incompetent failure where people fail for lack of effort or competence in standard operations.

  3. Make sure people know that honourable failures will not be criticized.

  4. Get people to admit to or even boast about failures they have had where they tried something innovative that did not succeed. Make these into learning experiences.

  5. In a culture that is very risk averse and keen to apportion blame take the issue head on by rewarding honourable failures. Publicly praise and reward those who have had them.

The innovative leader encourages a culture of experimentation. You must teach people that each failure is a step along the road to success. To be truly agile, you must give people the freedom to innovate, the freedom to experiment, the freedom to succeed. That means you must give them the freedom to fail too.

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation ( to help organizations improve innovation. His book, The Leader's Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, is published by Kogan-Page.

The Leader's Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills:
Powerful Problem-Solving Techniques to Ignite Your Team's Potential

by Paul Sloane
Kogan Page, Limited
July 2003

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Copyright 2006 by Paul Sloane. All rights reserved.

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