Samuel West spent years as an organisational psychologist trying to help companies create a culture of innovation and experimentation. It was frustrating work and rarely produced lasting change.
The problem, he says, is that people are happy to think about routes to success but never reasons for failure.
“All these people I worked with never had any lack of method. There were always lots of theories and plans for how to do this. But the root cause of why it didn’t work was that people were afraid of failure,” says West.
West wanted to find a way to get people to talk more openly about failure and came up with the idea of the Museum of Failure, a place where failed corporate innovations — from Apple’s Pippin games console to a doughnut-shaped Finnish water bottle — are on display, to be reflected on and discussed.
“To learn from failure we need to talk about it. The museum is a good way of creating that discussion,” West says.
West, who launched the museum in 2017, spent a year hunting down the initial objects through Craigslist, eBay and obscure internet discussion forums. “I nearly killed myself with work that year,” he says. Initially, no corporations wanted to help West source the items, but now that the show has gained some fame he gets donations sent in.
The 140-object exhibit tours around the world, usually spending three months at a time in a particular city. (The next exhibition will be at at Cité du Design in Saint-Étienne, France from the end of April).West also travels around innovation conferences with a smaller, pop-up display.
This is what West has learned about failure as he has built and toured the collection:
- Seeing other people’s failed projects makes people feel liberated and braver about trying things. “After seeing the exhibition people always tell me that, ‘if these big companies can fail then I can also take some risks’,” says West. This can happen in big and small ways. West tells the story of a Spanish couple who spent hours looking at the display and finally came over to thank him. They ran a guest house and told West that looking at big corporate failures had inspired them to finally go out on a limb and…(wait for it)… update their breakfast menu.
- It is hard to pick up a common thread in failures. To paraphrase Tolstoy: every successful innovation is alike, but each failed innovation fails in its own way. If there is one theme, however, it is products that are overhyped. “A lot of companies will do anything to hype their product, but they don’t realise that if it doesn’t live up to expectations, there will be no mercy. Take Google Glass, the smart glasses launched by Google in 2014. Google had put huge effort into making Glass cool, selling them only to qualified “Glass Explorers” for an eye-watering $1,500 before they were made available to the public. A backlash of privacy concerns and the branding of users as “glassholes” was not far behind.
- Another type of common failure is the “chief executive’s pet project”. A good example of this was the Amstrad [email protected], launched in 2000 by UK entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar. Sir Alan was a tech legend, having had success with his Amstrad PC in the 1980s. But the [email protected], a landline phone offering limited online access and email connectivity, was already obsolete when it launched. “Who was going to pay Amstrad by the minute to send emails when you could go online for free?” says West. “But Sugar just bulldozered it through, no one dared to question him.”
- Trying to style your way out of failure usually doesn’t work. Take the case of Procter and Gamble’s olestra in the 1990s. It was a calorie-free fat substitute that was supposed to allow you to eat as many crisps as you liked without putting on weight. The one small snag was that it gave people diarrhoea. Procter and Gamble initially tried to smooth over the issue by rebranding diarrhoea as “anal leakage”. This just turned the product from a simple failure to something that was openly mocked on late-night sketch shows.
- Corporations are bad at failure because don’t acknowledge it enough. But startups, despite the “fail fast” mantra, are bad at failure too. “They are good at accepting failure but they don’t learn from it. They just keep going at a fast pace. It has worked in Silicon Valley because there is so much money that they can afford to crash things and discard projects. But it may not translate well to other parts of the world,” says West, who would like to see both startups and corporates fail “mindfully” — that is, consider their mistakes and learn from them, rather than sweeping them under the carpet.
- After the Museum of Failure opens up an initial discussion, it is still really hard to create a culture that accepts failure in companies. West says he falls back on Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson’s theories around creating psychological safety. These are about creating an environment where it is ok for employers to suggest stupid ideas, ask uncomfortable questions and to show incompetence. But, says West, there is still little practical advice on how to do this. Senior managers are also very reluctant to apply this practice to themselves. “The people who hire me say it is fine for their staff, but if they admitted failure themselves at the executive level they would be out in a heartbeat.”