The Art of the Spectacular (Innovation) Failure" - truly learning the lessons of less-than-success

DrewCM's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Jun 02, 2011

The RMS Titanic was designed by experienced engineers, using some of the most advanced technologies and extensive safety features of the time. The ship incorporated the most technologically advanced features of the period, including three electric elevators in first class and one in second class. The vessel also had an advanced electrical system powered by steam-driven generators and ship-wide wiring for electric lights plus two Marconi radios. It was longer than three Airbus A380’s placed nose to tail. In short, it was a modern engineering marvel.

Technological innovation aside, on 15 April 1912 after hitting an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to the great consternation of one and all, it sank.

Not much more than three months later, Lewis Nixon wrote an article in The North American Review (Vol. 195, No. 679 (Jun., 1912), pp. 748-753) titled, “The Lesson of the ‘Titanic’.” In it Nixon detailed a list of mistakes made regarding the course of the ship on its calamitous journey and the enhancements to the advanced technologies it carried. 

Learning lessons from failure, especially the spectacular failure, of innovation efforts requires a willingness to face harsh and unpleasant realities. That is a challenging effort, often delayed, and sometimes avoided altogether. Sometimes it takes an external party, like a university researcher, to raise the prospect of failure and uncover it’s root causes. Consider the customer experience failure of high tech consumer goods,

Half of all malfunctioning products returned to stores are in full working order, but customers can't figure out how to operate the devices, a scientist said on Monday.

Some people, however, relish the opportunity to take lessons, investigate them deeply, and publicly share them. One such group is #failchat an off-shoot of FailCon, dedicated to learning from failures. FailCon is a one-day conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers and designers to study their own and others' failures and prepare for success.

Some organizations actually bake failure examination into their business processes so that they recognize earlier when they are failing, can learn from those failures more rapidly, and tighten the feedback loop into the innovation process to advance it further, faster.

Strange as it might seem, Microsoft might be considered one such company given it’s response to “Bob.”  As has Google, consider the rapid rise and demise of Wave. And yes, even governments have become serious about learning from their mistakes (they have yet to willingly embrace the label of “failure”, although some policies may be loudly proclaimed failures by an unhappy public.)

If we accept failure is an essential part of the learning process in innovation, let’s consider the following questions:

  1. What are ways to frame failure that make examining it more engaging?
  2. How might we recognize failure earlier?
  3. How do we make the lessons from failure more meaningful, tangible and useful?
  4. What signs point to the fact that the lessons of a particular failure are less valuable?
  5. At what point is a failure a signal to quit?

 @DrewCM will moderate this innochat

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