Learning From Failures

How Can Failures Be Good for the Development of an Idea?

In child development, the activity to get to learning is called making mistakes. In the field of science, the activity to get to a successful result is called experimenting. In entrepreneurship, the activity to gain experience is called serially (failed) venturing. In each of the examples, failure is part of the process and it is the iteration of trial and error of what not to do and what to do that eventually leads to new ways to do new and better things.

This iteration of trial and error (failures) creates new ideas fragments (dots) of which some are useful and others are not. But this generation of dots is vital during the idea development process because these dots are the critical fodder that is combined and connected in unique ways to generate new and better ideas. Failure is progress and it is a fundamental part of the innovation process.

When are Failures Good? And When are They Bad?

To drive successful innovation, you need to focus the innovation process on a specific topic, problem or a need. You also need to be persistent. Thomas Edison had focus and persistence as he conducted over 10,000 experiments before developing the commercial light-bulb. Clearly, he did not do the same experiment 10,000 times but changed variable each time based on new learning (failure) from previous experiments. Not learning from this experiments or failures would have resulted in repeating the same mistakes. Einstein famously defined insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Failures can be good as in the case of Viagra where the focus of the Pfizer research team was to find a drug to improve blood circulation to the heart (Angina). Unfortunately, the drug did not help with Angina and had significant changes in penile erections. Pfizer’s ability to see this failure as an opportunity by resetting the focus of the study from Angina to erectile dysfunction resulted in a billion dollar blockbuster. Similarly, Alexander Fleming’s openness to failures allowed him to observe an unplanned experiment (instead of throwing it away) that fungus could kill bacteria and as result the discovery of Penicillin. Along with Viagra and Penicillin, there has been a trail of innovations from Saccharin (sweetener) to mauve (dye) to Teflon.

An interesting failed case is the Iridium satellite phone from Motorola, which failed but enabled Motorola to learn a lot about satellite communications and the partners it would need to support a stream of other related innovations over the next decade.

Failure can be bad if a series of failures exceeds the failure-forgiveness tolerance of an organization. In some companies, you may be allowed to try two or three times and need to show results while in Edison’s case it was a thousand. If there are not examples of successes within an expected time frame then the organization may see the whole process as a failure.

What are the Classic Cases of Failures that Led to Major Innovations? And Most Importantly: What Do They Have in Common?

Classic failures that led to major innovations have often happened due to launching too early choosing an inappropriate Business Model.

In 1992, Apple’s Newton tablet computer was launched too early in a market where consumers were not ready (or trained) to use a new interface for entering data and not ready to give up their Franklin Covey Planner. However, the Newton planted the seed for where the world was going with convergence of devices such as laptops, cell phones and PDA and touch screen displays. The iPod Touch trained the market with a touch screen device which paved the road for the iPad. Today, it’s common to be “surprised” when the device we are trying to control does not react to our touch!

Another case is the first GM EV1 which helped advance battery technology, electric motors and charging technology. Though the EV1 was recalled, much of the technology and know-how was then applied in the new VOLT. It looks like the Volt will be success because of the broader network of partners and a more receptive market. GM was not as lucky with the catalytic converter that it invented. GM failed to capture the value from it but other partners like Englehard did.

Another great example is when Napster failed in its business model innovation but then Apple capitalized quickly on the learning with new partners etc. and afterwards succeed with iTunes. Since companies tend to react to failures, what are the failures that they commit in dealing with failures?

Most companies hide their failures and talk about their successes to excite wall-street. Similarly, most individuals don’t talk about failures and talk mainly about successes to ensure a bonus. As a result, learning from failures is not shared and the same mistakes continue to be repeated. In general, companies/bosses discourage their teams to continue looking for new solutions or creating new ideas when something goes wrong or they don’t get the expected result. At a minimum, you need to understand the root causes for these failures. And world-class innovators apply the lessons learned to future projects.

What Companies Can Do to Make the Work Environment is More Tolerant to Failure?

Companies that learn are companies that are more tolerant to failure. In order to learn, these organizations put in place challenges, project reviews, and time/space for experimentation. Motorola in the nineties challenged the whole organization to do things “10x faster.” This resulted in the creation of new projects about how to do things differently. Organizations that have project reviews and project post-mortems are organizations that are more flexible and course correct and also document learning that can be passed to other employees. Finally, leadership/managers create both time and space for individuals to experiment beyond the day job.

Many companies have clear directives for employees to spend time experimenting. Google is the latest to champion this idea, but companies like 3M and Genentech have been supports for years. All of these companies are clear about what needs to be done and measure people on delivering this result but give these individuals time and space to experiment and come up with new idea. Some companies even go as far to create a series of “learning histories” that is provided to all new employees. In these companies, the leadership asks what experiments are we doing and what are we learning. The Learning Histories let employees know that experiments (failures) should be expected, but learning from them is mandatory.

Are There Ways to Structure the Learning from Failure? What are they?

At IXL Center, we developed a tool to quickly collect learning histories and understand the root causes for successes and failures. The collection of successful and failed innovation stories documented in a systematic way with insights can then be easily shared. The human tendency to sweep a failure under the carpet is avoided if the company views the lessons learned as insightful. For example, “John tried to work on his idea alone and as a result found that his colleagues were unwilling to help him later on” is a compelling learning that for ideas to succeed, you need to involve others early in the game. In a second example, “Maria was able to refine the idea and make it more saleable to her management by involving the customer in the meeting” provides learning to other innovators that connecting an idea to a customer is critical. The key organizational learning becomes clear when you look at 10-20 learning histories and find common things that accelerate innovation or stop innovation.

Some basic ways to share learning could also be internal conferences where a part of the conference agenda is dedicated to “what not to do in the future”. As a manager, you can put “Lessons Learned from Experiments” on your team meeting agenda and ask what. As an individual, ask each other what you learned from that activity.