Learning from failure

What the Museum of Failure teaches us about success

Words / Richard Rawlinson 

Illustrations / Tyler Hach

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Remember Google Glass? Or Heinz’s green ketchup? Or Ikea’s inflatable furniture? The Museum of Failure in Helsingborg, Sweden, is a collection of failed products that provide insights into the risky business of innovation. Exhibiting over 70 design duds and marketing misfires, the venue aims to show the value of learning from mistakes.

Museum founder and organisational psychologist Samuel West says: “We know that up to 90 per cent of innovation projects fail. The message I want to convey is that it’s OK to share your unrefined ideas and failures without being negatively judged”.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say, “what were they thinking?” rather than view this garage sale of history as part of the creative process to discover what works and what doesn’t. Heinz’s multi-coloured EZ Squirt range was popular with kids, less so with adults raised on red ketchup. Ikea’s blow-up sofa looked comfy until it deflated over time, and made impolite noises when you sat on it. Google Glass, launched in 2014 as an eyewear-style computer-phone and camera, raised privacy issues and made users look dodgy. A version is, however, still used in some business environs.

The Apple Newton is another ground-breaking gadget on display that arguably debuted prematurely as a prototype. Touted in 1993 as the first personal digital assistant, it stored contacts, managed calendars and translated handwriting into text. It was also bulky, pricey, had limited memory space and the recognition feature for words scrawled onto the screen with a stylus was faulty. The device was derided, notably in an episode of The Simpsons. Although the Newton bombed, it’s now credited as the inspiration for all pocket computers, from the Palm Pilot and Blackberry to the iPhone.

The Segway, the two-wheeled electric vehicle, has just reached the end of the road after it was hailed as the future of personal transportation 20 years ago. Its founders heralded it as a game-changer and predicted reaching $1bn in sales faster than any company in history. Instead, it sold fewer than 24,000 units in its first four years. It was hyped as a general purpose product, but failed to convert enough walkers, cyclists or motorists, and ended up being used as a hired run-around by tourists, or tested out as the wheels of posties and some police officers on the local beat.

In his acclaimed book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, business guru Clayton Christensen asserted that the factors that help truly disruptive innovators succeed – listening responsively to customers, investing in next-generation technology – are the same reasons some companies fail.

In Silicon Valley, Dave McClure, co-founder of the 500 Startups incubator for tech ventures, has said: “We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn.”

Then again, it’s hard not to be shocked by a few of the ill-fated innovations at West’s Museum of Failure. Launched in 1999, the Rejuvenique Facial Toning Mask straps onto your face and tightens muscles by using electrical stimulation. Endorsed by former Dynasty star Linda Evans and still available on eBay, it claimed to provide a revolutionary facial workout, leaving you more toned and youthful-looking. The trouble is the mask makes users look like the teen-stalking psycho in Friday the 13th.

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Why we love things we make

When instant cake mixes arrived on the market in the mid-20th century, they didn’t perform well because housewives (it was the 1950s, remember) thought they made cooking too easy. By devaluing baking work, mixes made it less rewarding. When manufacturers changed the formula – so the recipe required adding an egg – they gained popularity.

This anecdote is cited in the introduction of the 2012 paper, The Ikea effect: when labour leads to love, to illustrate how people tend to value an object more if they make it themselves – or assemble it in the case of Ikea furniture.

Doing it ourselves fulfils a psychological need to feel capable of handling tasks. And the more self-belief we have, the more motivated we’re likely to be. When we’ve proved our competence with the screwdriver and instruction manual, we then want to feel our efforts were worth it. Enter another psychological term: cognitive dissonance, meaning how we alter our view of reality to avoid discomfort – whether about a wobbly Billy bookcase or something else entirely. We want to believe our toil is justified, and so place more value on the focus of our attention. This unconscious mental adjustment helps buffer us from any doubts about investing time and energy building shelves we could have bought pre-assembled.

An additional cognitive bias contributing to the Ikea effect is the ‘endowment effect’ wherein people value items more if they belong to them. Research shows how our high regard for ourselves extends to things that we own, whether or not we made them. We tend to look at things associated with ourselves – child, house, heirloom, Klippan sofa – with a degree of cheery optimism and pride.

These biases can certainly cloud our powers of reasoning before and after making purchasing decisions. Some businesses, from suppliers of self-assembly products to recipe box companies that deliver the ingredients for meals to make at home, boost profits based on the fact we’re prepared to pay over the odds for experiences that require us to put in more work. The experiences of playing cabinet maker or chef might be fun in their own right, but the Ikea effect can give us a rose-tinted impression of the end result – and our hand in achieving it.

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How money can buy happiness

The relationship between money and happiness has long intrigued, and divided, economists and psychologists. Princeton University study of 2010 showed levels of wellbeing increased with salary up to $75,000 (around £55,000), but, after that, had little effect on happiness.

Being unable to meet basic needs clearly causes anxiety, but more money can bring unique pressures of its own. Studies have also noted the endorphin rush from buying that flashy, new car is short-lived, and it’s experiences rather than possessions that create enduring fond memories. The counter claim is money buys experiences: what you drive, where you go and with whom. But there is consensus that people are happiest when they spend money on certain things.

For example, being generous makes us happy. Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton talks about the correlation between wellbeing and “pro-social spending” – in other words, spending money on others. “We conducted studies from national surveys to a field study examining how a company’s employees spent a profit-share bonus. They showed money can buy happiness, when people spend pro-socially (giving gifts to family and friends, donating to charities) rather than on themselves (buying flat-screen televisions).”

Another Harvard experiment gave people $10 Starbucks gift cards, asking some to spend on themselves, others to give the card away, and others to take someone out for coffee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the happiest group was the one that combined altruism with connection – spending on others while spending time with them.