The Museum of Failure

The Spark

8th June 2017

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Six years ago, Stanford University’s Baba Shiv proclaimed that failure drives innovation. Then, Harvard Business Review advised companies to stop punishing mistakes, after which Google went one further and started rewarding staff for flops, prompting Forbes to counter-intuitively suggest that a botch is a business’ best competitive advantage.  Somehow bungling became cool, a sort of badge of honour among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. This view of innovation was soon embodied in Agile development’s “fail fast, fail often” method, and encouraged by the MVP (minimum viable product) mentality of the Lean Startup. However, a dissenter, Dr. Samuel West, has sent a stark warning about our addiction to non-success by launching the Museum of Failure.

Opening its doors in Sweden, it showcases a collection of product innovations that proved to be anything but successful. Dr West has made it his mission to curate abysmal innovation failures from some of the world’s biggest brands. Nokia’s nonsensical N-gage, Apple’s inconsequential Newton and Google’s uncool Glass are amongst some of the flops on display.

The Museum of Failure’s purpose is to explore the high-risk world of innovation by examining why the products and ideas on display failed. “Failure is essential to innovation,” West explains. “I want organisations to become better at learning from failure instead of sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it never happened”.

He has a point. According to Mark Payne, author of How to Kill a Unicorn which explains why “some new ideas take off like rockets while others fizzle”, 90% of innovations flop. Dr. West is equally realistic; he was inspired to curate the exhibition after becoming tired of reading endless innovation success stories when he knew full well that most inventive new ideas are unsuccessful.

Innovation ‘bible’, Wired magazine agrees with the need for a more sceptical approach to duds. “Beware of the failure culture,” it warns in an article which calls for innovators to balance the need to reward experimentation with inventions which can be commercialised.

Back in the Museum of Failure, Dr. West hopes to capture people’s interest and encourage them to look at failure in a different way by grabbing their attention with the unusual cultural venue. As the museum’s website says: “Learning is the only way to turn failure into success”.

Of course, we no longer live in a time where invention takes an age. An African hand axe from 285,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 250,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death.

The reality of today is that an age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure. By understanding and talking about failures more openly, we can learn from them and not be afraid to fail. If you happen to be in Helsingborg in the coming months, be sure to give this one a visit.


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