Failure is an Option
“I HAVE NOT FAILED. I’VE JUST FOUND 10,000 WAYS THAT WON’T WORK.” — THOMAS EDISON
Some years back I spoke with a client of one of the big-name consulting firms about a project that had impacted the client’s core technology platforms.
Of course the client raved about how the consultants had
improved the system’s performance. A few months later,
those very systems went into a messy global meltdown
that impacted the client’s retail and institutional customers in some big (and litigious) ways.
Cue Samuel West. A Californian transplant to Sweden,
Samuel opened the Museum of Failure in his adopted
home city of Helsingborg, Sweden. The museum highlights such notable product failures as the Apple Newton, pens designed for females, a mask with electrodes
that was supposed to beautify your skin, and Blak—a
Coca Cola product that mixed Coca Cola with coffee.
Samuel isn’t being nostalgic or ironic. He’s a licensed
clinical psychologist with a PhD in organizational psychology, and his dissertation was on play and experimentation in the creative process. He recognizes that failure
is part of that process, and his museum highlights that
point. But West’s point isn’t just to highlight the reality
that even success-engines like Apple can have bad ideas;
it’s about the role those bad ideas and failures can play in
Apple’s (eventual) successes.
There are many reasons products or projects fail. And
sometimes there are consequences that need to be addressed: One civil engineering program in Quebec issues
its graduates iron rings along with their diplomas to remind them of a bridge collapse in 1907 that killed 75. The
message is simple—when engineers screw up, people die.
So we can’t lose sight of the fact that failure is a
It’s easy to understand why consulting firms aren’t
excited to talk about their failures. That’s not exactly
a recommendation in most marketing textbooks. But it
is important to gaze into the abyss and attempt to un-
derstand why a project failed. Deriving real, actionable
take-aways from failure is an important, and I think un-
der-developed trait, in consulting as elsewhere. But even
beyond project autopsies, failures need to be understood
in another, more contextual light. What may be a failure
in terms of immediate goals—profits, customer experi-
ence, vendor relationships, etc.—can lead to important
insights. Failure is not just part of innovation, it is a win-
dow into our thinking and processes.
Let’s face it: Consulting has always been regarded
by segments of the larger business world as a dark art,
as some sort of alchemic collection of potions and rituals with uncertain outcomes. Consultants have been
improving that perception somewhat by more carefully defining and producing measurable results. But such
technical expertise is only part of the solution. Examining and acknowledging—“owning”—failures can be as
important as celebrating successes. It’s also about recognizing failure. Projects may end by hitting all benchmarks and milestones, but six months or two years later,
have they really realized the value clients hoped for?
This goes to the heart of when and where consultants
can add value for their clients.
Again, the reason for failure can be complicated. The
clients themselves and external factors such as regulations often play a role in things going south. But just as it
is important to point out (and celebrate!) the role consulting firms play today in helping industries fundamentally
rethink, redevelop and calibrate their business models in
shifting market conditions, so too is it valid and important
to ask questions like, why did the “big three” American
automakers fail so badly in the 2009 crisis though all had
been working with consulting firms for years prior to the
crisis? What role did consulting firms play in the lead-up
to the 2009 crisis in financial services?
The goal is not blame, nor to penalize individual firms
or consultants. The goal is to both understand and build
broader trust in consulting services by fully embracing
the failures alongside the successes, along the way more
clearly defining for clients, governments and the business
public how consulting firms in aggregate have really had
an impact. In this way, past failures can help better make
the case for consulting services today.
Tomek Jankowski, Senior Analyst, Financial Consulting
Research, focuses on finance management consulting,
which includes the finance function, balance sheet strategy,
financial crisis management, and specialty finance.