Museum of Failure Reminds Us That a Small Setback Can Be a Big Positive

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Harley-Davidson perfume. Orbitoclast lobotomy (medical instrument). Nokia N-gage. Bic for Her pen. Those are just a few of the many items in the Museum of Failure, opening this Wednesday in Helsingborg, Sweden.


Given the fail-fast mentality often recommended today, it makes sense. "The purpose of the museum is to show that innovation requires failure," Samuel West, an organizational psychologist and the museum's chief curator, said. "If we're afraid of failure, then we can't innovate."

Of course, failure can be temporary. VGTV, an offshoot of the leading Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang, lost money for three years before becoming profitable in 2016. Now it's seeing a steep rise in growth, with a 51% increase year over year in the first quarter.

But three years is a long time for a smaller publisher. Molly Lindblom, principal, Business Transformations, and David Foster, CEO, Business Valuation Resources, once told us: "The goal is to fail cheap, fail fast and fall forward... It's about getting quick feedback about your customers and segments... When you invalidate an assumption, say you find out that you completely mischaracterized a customer segment, you walk away with those insights and gems that can point you in the right direction."

Rajeev Kapur, CEO of 1105 Media, will be speaking this afternoon at the Digital Marketing Boot Camp. He told an SIIA audience this last year: "I tell everybody that works for me that I'd rather have them try and fail than not try. And that I want them to make a decision. We can fix a bad decision; we can't fix a no-decision.

"No one will ever get fired for trying something new or for failing at something they tried to do. I reward people who try, people who think outside the box. I am doing everything I can to empower my team all the way down the chain to say, 'Look, this is what we need to do for the customer.'"

Elizabeth Petersen, chief people and strategy officer, Simplify Compliance, will be moderating a session on M&A exit strategies tomorrow at the conference. (Foster will be on the star-studded panel.) She believes that "one of the biggest barriers to innovation is fear of failure. The information industry is changing so rapidly and there are so many unknowns. Even the most thoroughly researched product may not gain market traction. The key to developing a humming new product development engine is to be comfortable with risk and to set measurable (and transparent) benchmarks for product success."

West said he started the museum "to encourage organizations to be better at learning from failures—not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened."

"Of course women can't use pens for men," he sarcastically told The New York Times about the Bic for Her Pen. West said the idea for the museum occurred to him when he visited the Museum of Broken Relationships. (There are branches in Los Angeles and Zagreb.) In an only-in-Scandinavia thing, a Swedish innovation agency provided funds to start the project. "All the literature is obsessively focused on success, but 80 to 90 percent of innovations actually fail," West said.

Kate Lucey, a former digital editor for Cosmopolitan UK, might say that's a good thing. "If something [messes] up, you can look at your stats and figure out what went wrong. Try new ideas—if they work, how can you expand them? If they fail, why did they fail and what have you learnt about your audience that you can apply to future work? It's constant learning, constant adapting—and a constant headache... but it's FUN."

West is definitely having fun. Like an innovative publisher, the museum is not shying away from putting on events. "During the inaugural month of June we are planning to host evening activities related to failure," the website says. "How about a failed gourmet tasting menu at a fancy restaurant? Or a tasting of failed brews from regional microbreweries? [blank]-up-night talks? We welcome any further suggestions. The crazier the better..."

Anyone have Sweden in their summer plans?

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…