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May 27, 2011

Failure Leads to Innovation

by aliciaarnold

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately in the innovation world about the importance of failure. In thinking about failure, I’m struck by the negative connotation. Though many of us consider failure a bad thing, sometimes there is an unintended consequence to failure. Namely, failure can lead to new thinking and innovation. I was reminded of the beauty of failure by my son.

I came home from a long week of work to find a table full of paper airplanes. Some were decorated with colorful drawings and some were left plain. While, some looked a bit battered and worn from their fair share of flight. Of all these airplanes, one stood out. It was an orange airplane that looked different from the rest.

Of course, I had to ask my son about this orange airplane. When I probed, he frowned and said, “It was a mistake. I couldn’t figure out how to make the plane correctly and it turned out like this.” Then, his frown turned into a smile and he continued, “But, then I looked at it and really liked it.” From there, he shared all of the features of his new design including boosters to make the plane fly faster, the unique design of the wings, and how particular folds helped the plan glide better.

With this thought in mind, I considered the many failures that turned into wonderful innovations. We all know about the story of 3M and Post-Its, but did you know…

  • PEZ (originally named for the Austrian word for peppermint) was introduced as an after-smoking mint. Luckily, the inventors realized PEZ made a better children’s candy than a smoking mint.
  • Jacuzzi tubs were invented in the 1950’s for arthritis sufferers. It wasn’t until the company positioned Jacuzzis as a luxury item that they found success.
  • Viagra was brought to market to relieve high blood pressure. Though it failed at relieving high blood pressure, it opened up an entirely new market for men’s pharmaceuticals.

When looking at failure, it might be good to take a second glance. You never know when a slight change in positioning, target market, or unintended consequence might open up a whole new category.

This article was originally posted on IIR’s Front End of Innovation as Failure Leads to Innovation

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