Fashioning the frontier of failure
October 5, 2022
By: Peter Josty
It is well recognized that innovations have been the main driver of economic progress and that items such as the internet, artificial intelligence and social media have transformed our lives.
We celebrate unicorns, make lists of the fastest growing companies and give awards to the entrepreneur of the year. But we usually don’t think much about the innovations that don’t make it – the failures. An exhibit called the Museum of Failure makes up for this. The idea was started in 2017 by Samuel West, who is a Swedish psychologist. The exhibit has toured world-wide — in Asia (Shanghai and Taiwan), Europe (Paris and Helsingborg), and the US (Washington, Los Angeles and Minneapolis). It is in Calgary — its first stop in Canada — until the end of September, and then possibly in Toronto and Montreal.
The Museum exhibits about 160 failures over quite a time span. The oldest exhibit shows the Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank spectacularly on its maiden voyage in 1628. More recently it highlights the Boeing 737 MAX.
Some of the exhibits will be well known, such as the Ford Edsel and New Coke. Some are quite hilarious — Harley Davidson Cologne and Colgate Frozen Dinner. (Talk about mixed messages!)
The exhibits are organized according to a variety of themes such as Medical Mishaps, Bad Taste, Digital Disasters, and Failure in Motion. There is even a section on Donald Trump’s innovations, such as Trump University, Trump steaks, Trump Shuttle, and Trump resorts, all of which ended in failure, usually accompanied by illegal business practices and lawsuits.
Each exhibit come with a handy app, so you can scan a QR code to get more information.
There are also inspiring quotations about failure:
- Thomas Edison: I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
- Robert F. Kennedy: Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
- Robert Kiyosaki: Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.
- Harvard University: Innovation is a risky business. Over 70 percent of all innovation initiatives fail.
- Elon Musk: Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.
Here are some of the more notable failures in the exhibit:
- Lawn darts. These were outdoor game darts with heavy metal spikes. Over 6,000 children were injured by these darts, which also killed three children. They were eventually banned in 1988.
- Seagram's Old Breed. The newly appointed CEO of Seagram’s, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., had the idea to add whisky to beer, and was convinced this was a winner. One of their employees said: “Lord it was awful. It smelled like the rug at a fraternity on the Sunday morning after a keg party. And it tasted even worse.” Bronfman then tried to turn the venerable producer of distilled spirits into an entertainment company that eventually destroyed it.
- Apple. There are several Apple innovations that flopped, among them the Apple Newton (a device with handwriting recognition that was the precursor of the iPod) and the Apple USB mouse (called the Hockey Puck due to its size. It was among the 10 worst Apple products of all time.)
- Microsoft. Quite a few Microsoft products are in the exhibit, including Windows 8, Microsoft Bob (a cartoon interface for beginners), and Microsoft Tay (an artificial intelligence based chatterbot that was shut down 16 hours after launch, as it began giving inflammatory and offensive tweets.)
- THERANOS. This is one of the few outright scams in the exhibit. THERANOS claimed to have developed a much improved blood test, but investigation revealed it was a scam. The inventor and CEO — Elizabeth Holmes — was convicted of defrauding investors, and now faces a fine of $500,000 and up to 20 years in jail.
The exhibit is a timely reminder that failures are an unavoidable part of innovation. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the failures and see what can be learned from them.
Peter Josty is Executive Director of The Centre for Innovation Studies (THECIS), a Calgary-based not-for-profit research company specializing in innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition to working in private research and business development, he holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of London and an MBA from the International Institute for Management Development in Geneva.