Last week I gave a presentation to a class of undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. The discussion was centered on the topic of failure and how the fear of business failure is relative based on where we live in the world. The students have spent the better part of the last year working on their startup business ideas and I was impressed with what the teams were able to accomplish and where they had admitted their failures. During the discussion one brave student admitted that he had felt a fear of failing during the course of launching their student business. When asked why he had explained that all of the students knew which projects from the previous year had done well and which had failed. He didn’t want his project to be on this year’s list of failed projects. He was interviewing with potential future employers and he wanted to be able to talk about his success.
The king of conservative retail, Target Corp, just had a rare sighting… a failure? While Target might not be the most conservative retailer out there they certainly wouldn’t be considered a big risk taker. In fact, just two years ago Target announced they were taking the huge leap into “international” retailing. If you are keeping track that was a full 20 years after Wal-Mart opened its first international store, Mexico City, Mexico, in 1991! Well, we are still waiting for the Target Canada stores to open in March/April 2013 but Target’s recent partnership with Neiman Marcus has officially been deemed a failure. See Time’s recent article titled Epic Retail Fail: Where Did the Target + Neiman Marcus Collection Go Wrong?
For the better part of the last decade I had focused my career on driving innovation for Best Buy, a Fortune 100 retailer, and the undeniable king in the consumer electronics category. When I joined the company I was focused on identifying innovative products and services that were specifically tailored for the needs of their newly identified customer segments. I then joined a team where we focused on creating new concept and prototype stores and lead the team responsible for the Escape concept store in Chicago. Eventually we shut down our two concept stores and I worked to reshape the team into an internal capability that could deliver new prototype stores (i.e. Best Buy Mobile), new retail models (i.e. Best Buy Express), and identify new growth product and service categories (i.e. Personal Transportation, Home Energy Management, and Health & Fitness).
We have all seen the endless number of quotes on how we should fail more, fail quickly, and fail often but what do we actually do with all of these failures? If we are lucky we might actually take the time to learn from them but usually we quickly take stock in what happened and make a few mental notes to ensure that we don’t do it again. Rarely do we share the details of your our failures even with friends or family and we certainly would never think of revealing our failures with colleagues or perspective employers. Why do we have this inconsistency? We know that failure is a necessary part of learning and growing for both the organization and the individual but we never want to admit to our failures? If our resume is a collection of our successes… where is our failure resume?
In early 2007 I was planning to launch my first Failure Forum. The forums were a series of presentations (modeled after TED talks) with an ensuing discussion that were meant to examine internal innovation projects that had been shut down. We sought to understand what had been accomplished with the project, what had we learned from it, and what would we do differently next time. The truth was that many of the innovation projects were modeled after previous work.
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