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Cartoon, boss explains that they do not celebrate failure in her company

If at First You Do Not Succeed, Learn

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Hang around innovation enthusiasts too long and you would be forgiven for thinking all ideas are brilliant, innovative ideas. But the truth is, most ideas are actually not so hot. Some are obviously daft ideas. Others seem great but start having problems when you try to implement them. When this happens, you should not continue pushing an idea that is unlikely ever to succeed. You should not dump the idea and deny it ever existed or that you were involved with it. Rather, you should learn from it.

Example from Coca Cola

Probably the most famous unsuccessful idea in recent business history was implemented by Coca Cola almost 30 years ago. Losing ground to Pepsi and seeing their new diet cola, with a different flavour than the traditional Coca Cola, gaining in popularity, Coca Cola decided to update the taste of their world famous drink. Being a huge multinational, they put their best food scientists on it, experimented thoroughly and conducted market research in a big way. By the rules of modern marketing, they did everything right. Their revised Coca Cola should have been a success.

It was not. It failed miserably. Coke drinkers were more emotionally devoted to the old flavour than anyone had realised and complained bitterly about the new product. Sales of the new coke bombed.

Fortunately, Coca Cola executives of the time were a bright bunch (and presumably still are). They promptly admitted their mistake and relaunched the original Coca Cola, as Coke Classic, alongside the new drink, known as New Coke. Sales of the New Coke fell sharply and sales of the original Coca Cola soon started growing again.

In spite of their failed idea, Coca Cola did two things right, thus minimising their losses. They learned that traditional coke was emotionally important to their customers and they relaunched it quickly. As sales of the new coke fell, the company soon took the product off the market.

Getting Unattached from Ideas

When an idea looks good and you implement it, it is easy to become overly attached to the idea. When it does not work, and analysis shows that it is unlikely to do so, it is hard to drop the idea. It is harder still when you have invested money in the idea. There is the temptation to continue to develop the idea in the hope that you can recoup your investment. Still, when an idea is not working and evidence shows that it is unlikely ever to work, it is best to drop the idea, learn from the mistakes and start something new. Hanging on will only cost more in terms of money, resources and time. Imagine the losses Coca Cola would have experienced had they stubbornly refused to relaunch the original Coke and only sold the new Coke.

Fortunately, for the company, Coca Cola quickly learned from their mistake. They learned how amazingly devoted their customers were to the original Coke. They learned that the flavour of the drink was so sacred, in most people's minds, that they would not change to an alternative – even if the alternative tasted better. Doubtless Coca Cola learned a lot more which they presumably have been implementing in their marketing strategy since.

Indeed, Coca Cola came through their failed idea fiasco so impressively that there have been rumours that it was all a grand marketing campaign. I doubt that is true. But, over the long run, I would not be surprised if Coca Cola gained more from their unsuccessful idea than they lost. But this comes from handling a failed idea very well indeed.

Learning from Our Mistakes

It is a cliché to say that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. But it is entirely true. When an idea fails, it is important to learn why. Sometimes it is obvious, as was the case with Coca Cola. Other times it is not so clear. Often, we are too close to an idea to see why it will not work. In that case, it is useful to bring in an outsider to look at the idea and determine what went wrong. With small personal ideas, a spouse, friend or relative can be useful. For big corporate or organisational ideas, a consultant may be necessary.

In an organisation, it is important not to punish the person responsible for the unsuccessful idea. It is human nature to want to lay the blame for mistakes on someone else. And it all too often happens that the person who proposes an idea that fails is reprimanded. Sadly, such a reprimand is likely to make creative employee reluctant to propose new ideas to the organisation in the future. And when this happens regularly, more and more creative thinkers learn to keep their innovative ideas to themselves, rather than risk accumulating blame for failures.

Moreover, in any organisation, acceptance of an idea usually requires a number of people (no one person at Coca Cola simply said, “let's launch a new version of Coke,” and launched it all by herself). Implementation requires even more people. Thus the originator of a failed idea can hardly be held exclusively to blame.

It is better to involve the originator in the evaluation of why the idea failed. Compliment the her for the idea and encourage her to continue to contribute ideas. Chances are, another idea – from the idea originator – in the near future will more than make up for losses from the failed idea.

And the result of all this learning from mistakes? Improve innovation results!

 


A version of this article first appeared in the 6 June 2004 issue of Report 103


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium