Failure: How to make the most of your mess ups

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

Most people would agree that innovation is a good thing: companies committed to innovating tend to be more successful than those without an innovation strategy. To innovate necessitates taking risks and failure is a by product of risk taking.

If charities are to be more innovative we need to get more comfortable with the ‘F-word’. I am not suggesting that we strive for failure and would certainly advocate well researched intelligent risk taking.  But there comes a point with any new idea that you have to take the plunge.

Take for example the hugely risky NT Live (for the first time the National Theatre showing a play live to a cinema audience).  The NT risked damaging their brand, losing the goodwill of their live audience and their cast and a multitude of other things.  But it was a good well-researched idea and in the end they just had to go for it.  In his interview immediately before the first screening Nicholas Hynter (Director of the National Theatre) admitted that he had no idea what was going to happen and they had back-up plans to pull the subsequent screenings. Fortunately they didn’t need to.

If it had not worked out they were willing to accept it, embrace it, and learn from it. It is that attitude that allowed the risk to be taken and brought success.

A famous example of success out of failure is ‘New Coke’.  In the face of hot competition by Pepsi, Coca Cola decided that they needed tonew_coke_2.jpg change the taste and look of Coke.  After 200,000 taste tests with very positive results, New Coke was launched in 1985. There was a huge public backlash against the change to the brand.  Within three months it was withdrawn from the shelves and hastily replaced by ‘Classic Coke’. Donald Keough, the company President said that all the consumer research “could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people”. Coca Cola learned a great deal about what their brand meant to their consumers and used the bruising experience to learn and grow. Apparently the CEO, Roberto Goizueta when called into Keough’s office expecting to be sacked was told “Hell no, I’m not going to sack you, I’ve just spent $10M training you”.

post-it-notes.jpgAnother well known commercial failure is Post-it notes.  The glue used on Post-it notes was a failed glue that did not hold things together produced by 3M scientist Spencer Silver in 1970. No-one knew what to do with it until another 3M scientist found his markers in his hymn book kept falling out and realised the weak glue that would not damage the pages was just what he needed. Post-it notes were invented and 3M is recognised as one of the most innovative companies in the world (31% of their revenue is from new products). Check out this You Tube clip for innovating with Post-it notes

So two examples of failures bringing about success, one through learning from it and another through seeing it differently. How does this apply to charities?

For what makes a good failure read Heather Bewer’s blog. You might also like to read this Business Week article on How Failure Breeds Success and this Stanford School of Business article on Why Failure Drives Innovation.

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