Failure on Display

Samuel West, founder of Museum of Failure, holds a flop – Heinz ‘Green Sauce’ ketchup

Do you remember those inflight telephones that airlines introduced 15 years ago or so? They were embedded in the seatbacks, had a retractable cable, and you paid for the service by sliding a credit card through a slot in the phone. This innovation I dreaded. I was a frequent flyer at the time and feared getting stuck next to a blowhard yapping about office politics for a flight’s duration. Boeing was one of the companies behind this innovation, which must have required a giant investment given the engineering and the conversions of all those seatbacks. Unlike Boeing and the airlines, I was not disappointed to see those phone-embedded seatbacks disappear a few years later. The inflight phone innovation was a flop.

Not an unusual one however. When I was a business entrepreneur some of my ventures ended up in the loss column. In fact 80 to 90% of innovations fail, according to Dr. Samuel West, a Swedish organizational psychologist.

Those telephones would I think be a prime candidate for display at the Museum of Failure, which opened last week – successfully, I hasten to add – in Helsingborg, Sweden. Dr. West founded the museum for the purpose of showing that “innovation requires failure. If we’re afraid of failure, we can’t innovate.” The museum’s exhibits include the two-wheeled Segway vehicle, Google Glass, a “Trump: I’m Back and You’re Fired” board game, and Harley-Davidson cologne. (Dr. West describes the new museum in a humorous two-minute YouTube video.)

Failure is so pervasive in the arts, and some artists become so insular, that they can develop a distorted “victim” perspective about their misfires. One estimate of the theatre ecosystem is that each year 20,000 plays are written in the U.S. and 2,000 receive professional premieres. Do the math and that’s a 90% failure rate, the same as Dr. West cites for business innovations.

Veteran scriptwriter and director David Mamet addresses failure in an online course he teaches. He tells students, “You cannot learn to write drama without writing plays, putting them on in front of an audience, and getting humiliated. . . At some point you’ve got to say ‘Okay, it’s going to be bad. You’ve got to stand being bad if you’re going to be a writer. Because if you don’t you’re not going to write anything good.’” Write, fail, pick yourself up off the floor, go write the next script.

In the arts it’s not just the musicians, writers, painters and sculptors who bemoan how rare success is. Broadway producers gripe all the time about how only 25% of plays on Broadway recoup (theatre talk for returning their investment). The venture capital world would be delighted with a 25% success rate. One estimate for venture capital portfolios is that out of 18 investments, 12 will be complete failures, three will muddle along, and three will be hits – not home runs, mind you, but solid hits. Three out of 18 is a success rate of 17%.

In the San Francisco Bay area a few years ago a series of conferences was launched under the name of Failcon. Its motto was “Embrace your mistakes. Build your success.” The speakers were entrepreneurs dissecting their failures. I just visited Failcon’s website and the company appears to have embraced its mission more thoroughly perhaps than it intended. Its last conference was held in 2014 and no more are planned.

Business executives, entrepreneurs and artists can all take heart from Sweden’s newest museum and its guiding mission. Dr. West hopes that the failed products displayed at his museum will “make you feel less apprehensive about learning something new. If you’re developing a new skill, trying to learn a new language or create something new, you’re going to fail. Don’t be ashamed of it. Let’s learn from these failures instead of ignoring them.”

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