You Failed! Now What?

You Failed! Now What?Last week, I had three conversations with three different companies. And each had a complaint about the same group of people: lawyers.

If you think about it, innovators and lawyers have completely opposite objectives.

Innovators want to grow the business. They believe that risk and failure are a natural part of the innovation process. Their mantra is “expansion.”

Lawyers, on the other hand, want to guard the business. Their objective is to minimize risk and avoid failure. Their mantra is “protection.”

But the issue isn’t really lawyers versus innovators. The issue is how to balance an organization’s need to protect the business while enabling it to expand at the same time.

In my previous blog entry, I discussed how to redefine failure. The model proposed was to treat everything like an experiment. While using this mindset, failure only occurs when the experiment does not give you the feedback you require.

However, sometimes even experiences can give you false positives. That is, the experiment tells you a new product, service or market is a good idea, yet in the end it proves to be a total flop.

In those situations, you have a good old fashioned failure on your hand. What do you do then? Beat up the people involved?

I was having a conversation with the former head of innovation for a giant retailer. In their quest for big successes, they had some colossal failures. Instead of chastising the people involved with the failed venture, they celebrated. They held a massive funeral. There was even a coffin in which the project (not the project team) was buried. In my mind I can imagine a New Orleans style funeral with music.

Several years back, Intuit, decided to target a younger population by linking tax filing with hip-hop. They made large marketing investments and created partnerships with companies like Expedia and Best Buy. But in the end, their marketing effort proved unsuccessful. They attracted very few new customers and killed the program.

How did they handle the failure? According to BusinessWeek:

“The team that developed the campaign documented its insights, such as the fact that Gen Y-ers don’t visit destination Web sites that feel too much like advertising. Then, on a stage… in front of some 200 Intuit marketers, the team received an award from Intuit Chairman Scott Cook. ‘It’s only a failure if we fail to get the learning,’ says Cook.”

Successful companies don’t punish failure. They don’t necessarily celebrate them either. But there should be serious consequences if:

  • You try to sweep your failure under the rug
  • You try to blame someone else for your failure
  • You don’t learn from your failure and as a result make the same mistakes again
  • You create a colossal failure without first doing enough due diligence, often in the form of experiments

The point is not to glorify failure. Although failures can give you useful input, success can do the same, at a much lower price. But if you do fail, be sure to deal it head on. Learn from the experience.

Or as Reverend Lawrence G. Lovasik once said:

“Any fool can try to defend his mistakes – and most fools do – but it gives one a feeling of nobility to admit one’s mistakes. By fighting, you never get enough, but by yielding, you get more than you expected.”

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Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.

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Stephen Shapiro




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No Comments

  1. Jackie Hutter on May 25, 2010 at 9:00 am


    Speaking as a lawyer (well, “recovering lawyer”), I DO think lawyers are a lot of the problem. As long as lawyers are incentivized to control risk and cost, they will be the “traffic cops” for innovators. Your experiment paradigm is intriguing, but in order for organizations to be successful in adopting this viewpoint, lawyers have to be part of the process from its inception. Unfortunately, lawyers aren’t programmed to innovate. Just the opposite, we are trained and rewarded for following established precedent. It is the rare lawyer who can play with innovators on their terms.

    Of course, it is probably not totally the fault of the lawyers that your clients were referring too–they were also to blame for not picking the right lawyers and/or giving them proper instructions. In short, lawyers are from Mars and innovators are from Venus. The sooner that business leaders realize this, the fewer problems they will have.

  2. Stephen Shapiro on May 25, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Hi Jackie!

    I was thinking of you while writing this entry. The article I started to write showed how innovators and lawyers could (and do) work together nicely. But I decided to save that topic for another day.

    What’s interesting is that as innovators we like to think of the lawyers as the bad guys. Of course this is not the case. We each have a job to do. And both are equally valuable.


  3. Eric-Marie Picard on May 31, 2010 at 2:47 am


    Saying “lawyers are from Mars and innovators are from Venus”, Jackie have pretty well illustrated and summarized the education and culture gaps between these two, yet earthling, species.

    I once met an IP lawyer who actually challenged me so much that I had to admit the novelty of my idea was not what I was thinking about. Therefore, this lawyer helped me reformulate my project, by redefining the related invention and better understanding its transformative value.
    It took us about one hour to understand each other and positive collaboration took place because we were two listeners serving the same interest and objectively discussing about how to evaluate it.
    This upstream collaboration was crucial to avoid blindly engaging the project on a ‘very likely to fail’ path.

    Failure, as the the natural shadow of success, deserves the same attention. Both are built and consequences of our actions, decisions and understanding. Actually, I have seen very few organizations capable of analyzing their success, while they take time to consider their failure.

  4. Adam on June 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm


    Great post!

    But I have to tell you that I reject the premise. There is no law of nature that says lawyers and innovators must be at odds. The reality is that most business people are not particularly innovative and neither are most lawyers. If a company chooses to focus on innovation then there are moves it can make to increase the level of innovation it gets from its people be they commercial or legal employees.

    One of those moves is to reject your distinction between expanding and protecting the business. In most (if not all) markets, expansion is necessary for survival. You cannot possibly protect a business by stymieing its efforts to expand. A business that is serious about innovation (and most just like the buzzword) will hire and develop lawyers with a keen feeling for the business imperatives and the legal acumen to manage through (yes, through) the most severe legal risks. Similarly, they will hire commercial folks with the maturity to respect the expertise of their lawyers and the ability to sit at the table with them as partners in crafting a strategy that optimizes the approach to satisfying business imperatives and adhering to legal and regulatory requirements.


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