Failure, Glorious Failure

Failure is what happens when innovation goes wrong, right? Wrong. When I was asked to write about grand innovation failures, it seemed a perfect entertainment opportunity – the Darwin Awards of the business world. All I’d need to do is compile a list of stinkers like the Pontiac Aztek, New Coke and Smell-O-Vision, share a laugh and be done with it.

Failure is what happens when innovation goes wrong, right? Wrong.

When I was asked to write about grand innovation failures, it seemed a perfect entertainment opportunity – the Darwin Awards of the business world. All I’d need to do is compile a list of stinkers like the Pontiac Aztek, New Coke and Smell-O-Vision, share a laugh and be done with it.

There’s only one problem with this approach: failure isn’t what happens when innovation goes wrong. In fact, failure is key to getting innovation right.

The light went on for me while brainstorming this article with my colleagues at Maddock Douglas. They reminded me our best, most successful clients are actually serial failers. In fact, they’re so good at failing that they’ve institutionalized it as part of a winning innovation pattern.

So instead of trotting out random grand failures, I thought I’d take you along our 3 step innovation process:

  • 1. Finding a meaningful insight or market need
  • 2. Creating a new product, service or business model to fill that need
  • 3. Linking 1 and 2 with communication

At each step, I’ll show examples of how companies have failed forward and succeeded; and how companies have failed backward and gone home with their tail between their legs.

Finding the need

Every company has a classic failure story about an innovation looking for a need. Often it’s a cool new technology that you’ve just acquired, (or worse, one that R&D has been working on for years). It’s so impressive that everybody will need it, right?


Spending a disproportionate amount of time on finding a real need in the market is critical to great innovation. Because no matter how terrific your idea, if people don’t need it, it…will…not…succeed.

The Self-Stirring Mug exemplifies innovation without need. This mug’s internal motor stirs your coffee and cream – eliminating the monumental effort of picking up a stir stick. Great idea, but certainly not one that would’ve seen the light of day if the innovator had spent time in a coffee shop asking people if stirring was the bane of their existence.

Contrast that with the Traveller Coffee Lid. Think back a few years to the famous lawsuit against McDonald’s, where someone accidentally opened their takeaway coffee and scalded themselves by spilling it in their lap. Had you asked people in cars back then if a ‘non-tearaway’ lid was important, I’m pretty the answer would’ve been universally yes. That’s why this innovation met with resounding success. (As an aside, remember when coffee lids weren’t even necessary? It was back when cup holders in cars didn’t exist. Macro trends like ‘eating on the go’ often drive (pun intended) innovation. Watch closely for them.)

Finding the most important need

Want some fun? Ask someone in your company to describe why a new product or service concept they’ve been working on is needed by your customers. You’ll likely get a multitude of reasons why this idea is not only necessary, but game changing.

But what happens when you create an innovation that meets several, equally important needs? More buyers, right?


Think of TiVO. It was (and is) a great product. But it lost valuable momentum at launch because the innovators seemingly failed to identify which of many needs it fulfilled best. It anticipated shows you liked and recorded them. It allowed you to skip commercials. It was easier than a VCR. All important, but which one was top of the pops?

By the time TiVO discovered its biggest benefit – eliminating the complicated, fussy VCR – it had squandered launch excitement, and left consumers confused. Today, it’s one of many DVRs, instead of THE DVR.

Contrast that with the iPod. Essentially a storage device, the iPod can hold files, names, addresses, calendars as efficiently as many pda’s. But you won’t hear any of these benefits addressed in an iPod commercial– for good reason.

Of course, telling the world your innovation’s biggest benefit doesn’t mean you should only have one benefit. To create revolutionary innovation, you need to answer as many needs as possible – preferably needs gleaned ‘outside’ the jar of your own business. The trick is quantifying the needs to determine the biggest, most valuable one. Then, and only then, should you begin to brainstorm.

Brainstorming a product or service model to fill the need

Once you’ve got your needs and insights straight, it’s time to brainstorm.

Again, it’s ideal to brainstorm with experts outside your industry who have solved a challenge that parallels yours.

Brainstorming is where the serial ‘failer’ is at his best. Edison is said to have failed at inventing the lightbulb 1,000 times before succeeding. He also emphasized every failure brought him one step closer to success.

Key here is changing the language related to ‘failing’. Consider demanding your team create 10 beta versions or that they soft launch 5 times, learning successively more with each launch. That way, you aren’t failing – you’re merely course correcting, honing and perfecting.

As a young man, I sold TV’s and stereos. I remember the arrival of the laserdisc player from Zenith. We thought it was going to replace videotape forever – until we tried to use it. The discs were unwieldy, in short supply, and operational capabilities were limited. As a consequence, the players gathered dust on our shelves, and were eventually given away. A few years later, DVD’s appeared, changing everything. Unfortunately, it seems the Zenith laserdisc folks gave up, instead of going back to the drawing board.

Contrast this with the evolution of video cameras. From the clunky first models back in 1983, camcorders have charted a course of fluid innovation and improvement. They moved from videotape to disc to chip storage. They shrunk in size. Now, they’re becoming part of your mobile phone. There was never talk of giving up…failed innovations led


When it comes to innovation, communication fails when it doesn’t link the need with the invention.

Consider the insurance industry. One of the better innovators when it comes to products, one of the worst communicators when it comes to describing those products. What’s the difference between ‘Variable Life’, ‘Whole Life’ and ‘Universal Life’? If you can tell me, you’re really smart, really bored or an insurance agent.

On the other hand, we’ve seen real breakthroughs in communicating pharma innovation…despite one of the strictest regulatory environments imaginable. Case in point – Cialis. An erectile dysfunction drug with, um, benefits that last up to 36 hours. Despite being forbidden by regulation to say what Cialis does, communicators have linked the product with the need admirably.

So where does this leave us? Hopefully to a place where you embrace more innovation, not less. The world is in desperate need of new ideas. Don’t let a few failures stand in the way of creating the Next Big Thing. Failing forward is much, much better than never trying at all.