Samuel West is obsessed with failures. In fact, the innovation researcher and organizational psychologist collects them—and now his collection is on display.
The Museum of Failure, West’s brainchild, celebrates the absurd and hilarious wrong turns that companies have taken in their product development—from Colgate’s unappetizing beef lasagna, to Harley Davidson’s leathery-scented perfume, to Bic’s sexist “for Her” lady’s pen.
But it’s more than that, too. West’s bigger point, he says, is he’s sick of everyone worshipping success. Every failure is uniquely spectacular, says West, while success is nauseatingly repetitive. True innovation requires learning from the complexities of each failure—a skill that, he says, most companies fail to hone. Opening this June in Helsingborg, Sweden, the museum seeks to de-stigmatize personal and professional failure.
Like any good museum, the Museum of Failure can be divided into categories—offering a tour of the misguided (but often relatable) thinking that leads to a product bombing.
Many of the museum’s featured products represent egregious brand over-extensions. Colgate, the toothpaste company, tried to ride the 1980s frozen dinner wave with Colgate Beef Lasagna, for example—but found people weren’t particularly eager to buy frozen pizza from their toothpaste company (pictured above).
Coca-Cola BlāK, a coffee-flavored Coke drink, lasted just two years (2006 to 2008).
And Harley Davidson, the cult motorcycle brand, delightfully flopped with its “Hot Road” perfume. (Nothing like the fragrance of a leathery motorcycle to boost the spirits.)
Other products failed because of their awful design. There’s Nokia N-Gage, the smartphone and handheld gaming system, released in 2003. The N-Gage was, quite simply, terribly designed: It had to be disassembled to change games; very few games were available; and you had to open it like a taco to use the phone.
The “Twitter Peek” was a similar fail. Released in 2008, the single-use tweeting device sought to bypass expensive cellphone data—except its screen was too small for 140 characters and it couldn’t handle more than a few messages.
Then there are the products that weren’t in themselves a failure, but were part and parcel of thinking that ultimately doomed their companies.
Take the Blockbuster DVD: Internal feuding led the formerly undisputed video rental leader to fire a CEO who promoted streaming and a subscription-based DVD rental, and to cut the company’s budding streaming service. That was, of course, a disastrous move. Blockbuster’s failure to adapt ensured its 2013 bankruptcy, and paved Netflix’s road to success.
Similarly, Kodak’s digital camera could have facilitated the company’s continued dominance—had the company realized that online photo sharing was the future. Instead, it continued to chase photo printing, and went bankrupt in 2012, months before Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion.
Some products are just ludicrous and funny, like this terrifying mask promoted by the actress Linda Evans in 1999, which supposedly beautified by electrically shocking your face numerous times a month.
West wants his exhibit to encourage organizational cultures that respect, rather than deride or ignore, failure. Such cultures require psychological safety, he says—an atmosphere that allows people to be human, share imperfections, and ask “dumb” questions without being criticized or judged. Psychological safety doesn’t just help employees bond; it significantly amplifies a team’s productivity, success, and innovation, Silicon Valley companies are learning.
“Learning is the only process that turns failure into success,” says West. “So if you don’t learn from your fuck ups, then you’ve really fucked up.” Simple as that.