Failing Forward - the PeekI was reading today about a number of the biggest product failures of all time (kind of a fun read actually). One of the things that jumped out at me was the number of companies that are known for being really innovative that made the list of failures. Normally if you were to put together a list that included Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Starbucks you would be reviewing the “most innovative brands” or something similar.

What does it tell you if some of the best-known innovators are also on the list of the biggest innovation failures of all time? Everybody fails. It’s what you do with those failures that

Everybody fails. It’s what you do with those failures that matters.

If you look at these failures you can see how these innovative companies used them to “fail forward”. They learned from the failure and turned that learning into future success.

Just for fun let’s highlight a few of the “big failures” to illustrate my point:

Failure - Facebook PhoneFacebook Phone (2013)

Facebook may have missed the boat thinking that people wanted a phone that was centred around their Facebook lives. Facebook wasn’t wrong that people wanted Facebook to be more mobile. While Facebook may have misread the market for a dedicated device it did force them to redouble their efforts on improving their mobile application.

Since the Facebook Phone fell flat, Facebook has prioritized its mobile apps introducing dedicated applications for Pages, Groups, Photos, and more. They have drastically improved the interface of their applications and have one of the most regular application update cycles of any major publisher.

Yes, the Facebook Phone failed, but Facebook on mobile has become their biggest success story to date.
Failure - Apple Pippin

Apple Pippin (1995)

In 1995 Apple launched the Pippin – a gaming console that combined games, web browsing, education, and more into one console. The launch failed miserably (less than 100,000 units sold), but if you look at the history of Apple in these spaces since you can see the learnings they took from this failure.

They were too early to market for this type of comprehensive device – the web was pretty rudimentary in 1995 with a much smaller user base than today. Web functionality wasn’t important for console buyers at the time, it was all about the games, and the Pippin didn’t have the content that would sway buyers. Finally by trying to cram as much functionality onto the device as possible Apple created a device that did lots of things but none of them very well.

Fast forward 6 years and Apple launched the iPod. While this device didn’t follow the “console” approach (and Apple is still struggling somewhat with adoption in that platform with Apple TV), it did build on the learnings from the Pippin. The first iPod was a focused device that did one thing really well, it focused on that one thing and integrated the best content to augment that one capability (iTunes and the iTunes Store).

Failure - McDonald's Arch DeluxeMcDonalds Arch Deluxe (1996)

Way back in 1996 McDonalds was recognizing the shift in their demographics and the need to “grow up” their menu. The Arch Deluxe was one of their first “adult oriented” burger offerings it didn’t differ enough from their existing burgers to attract old customers who had grown up with the chain. But much like many of McDonalds food innovations over time they weren’t wrong on the need, they just missed the mark on the solution.

Since 1996 McDonalds has continued to push the envelope with their “adult” focused meal options – more adult tastes in their burgers, deluxe salad offerings, and most recently the “Build Your Own” burger offering that sees higher end burger options and personal service in their restaurants.

When you know the problem you see is real, it is worth continuing to innovate around it. Just because your first idea and solution don’t hit the target doesn’t mean that the target was necessarily wrong, your aim just might have been bad.
Failure - Maxwell House Coffee in a Box

Maxwell House Coffee In A Box (1990)

Hey remember this one? Didn’t think so. Maxwell house was 20 years too early with this “premium instant” coffee offering that they marketed. This was real brewed coffee (not instant) in a box so it was ready as soon as you needed it – you just needed to heat it up and go.

Unfortunately, in this case, I would say that Maxwell house didn’t learn from the failure – but others did!

The simple answer to the Maxwell House product failure was to simply market it cold. If you think about the multi-millions of dollars spent annually on “premium” iced coffee, this was really one of the first offerings. If they had marketed this product as a “cold coffee” beverage instead of something you had to heat they might have been ahead of the market. Instead, others discovered our love for cold coffee and took the market.

The other answer was the need for “instant” but not “instant” coffee. Keurig and Tassimo were able to engineer a better instant cup of coffee that has completely changed the coffee landscape. Now I get a quick, easy cup of coffee without having to heat anything up. If only Maxwell House had considered other alternatives they might have discovered a new way to “brew on demand” instead of box their product.

Fail Forward

Overall I think the list is a lot of fun and definitely worth checking out. You can review the whole list of 102 Biggest Product Fails here:

The moral is that you need to seek learning in failure. Failing forward isn’t really failure. I call it progress.

I’d love to know your favourites!

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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