Why Failure Can Be The Path To Success

September marks the date that the aptly named Museum of Failure closes. It displayed more than 70 products and services from around the world. They included those from well-known brands such as a Harley-Davidson perfume, Bic for Her, the Apple Newton, Google Glass, and Kodak Digital Cameras.

We are all conditioned to laud, glorify and reward success. But it is, in fact, failure that teaches us far more. We learn all our basic skills – walking, talking, eating, riding a bike – from failing until we succeed. In fact, we never stop failing – and every time we do it breeds a better chance of success next time.

Many of the museum’s featured products represent brand over-extensions. Harley Davidson flopped with its “Hot Road” perfume – perhaps the “masculine fragrance with woody notes” was just a bit too leathery? And the “Bic for Her” range of pink pens provoked widespread online ridicule.

The Apple Newton may have been a product before its time, but the principles of an always on, always connected personal assistant to keep track of business and leisure is core in every one of the 41 million iPhones sold in Q3 2017. Google Glass was canned in 2015 but the augmented reality and virtual reality markets are still considered some of the hottest spaces in the current technology scene. Kodak ultimately failed in the digital photography market – but not before pioneering digital photography and creating the first million-pixel camera.

The point is that, while individual products might fail, the markets identified by these companies – mobile computing, digital photography, AR/VR – did not. True innovation requires learning from each failure–a skill that museum director Samuel West says, most companies fail to hone.

Brands will not always succeed, and products will fail. What is important is to encourage organisational cultures that respect both success and failure. There needs to be a principle of innovation, where new ideas are welcomed and challenge the status quo. By thinking outside the box and providing unique solutions, both customers and businesses will benefit.

Not every idea can succeed. Some will fizzle out, while others were never strong enough to begin with. Making mistakes can help to pave the way for future success.

The intended use of the Slinky, a popular children’s toy, was to keep fragile equipment steady on ships. Naval engineer Richard James developed the tool in 1943, but soon discovered its fun side when he knocked it off a table. Since then, the spring has found other uses – an antenna for soldiers in Vietnam and a therapy tool. The original concept was never realised, but the product found new life.

The idea for Post-it Notes was almost discarded completely. Inventor Spencer Silver was trying to develop a strong adhesive in 1968, and failed. He made an adhesive that would stick objects together, but could easily be pried apart. It took nearly ten years for today’s application of the sort-of-weak glue to be realised, but now we find it difficult to imagine an office without one.

We should not call these cases failures – failing would have been discarding the Post-it Note, or being too proud to see a new application for the Slinky. Instead, we should consider these cases research. If an organisation can cultivate the idea of success through failure, an environment can be created that learns how to turn failure into success.

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