🍔 What The Museum of Failure Can Teach Internal Communicators
Lessons from a sinking warship, a flopped hamburger and a flimsy bicycle
When I need a virtual vacation, I visit Atlas Obscura, “the definitive guide to the world's hidden wonders.” I’ve stumbled upon “the carousel that saved a town” in Oregon, learned “how to make olive oil like the ancient Egyptians” and discovered “The Museum of Failure” originally in Helsingborg, Sweden and now a traveling exhibit. Its mission is the following:
"The Museum of Failure is a collection of failed products and services from around the world. The majority of all innovation projects fail and the museum showcases these failures to provide visitors a fascinating learning experience. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation. Innovation and progress require an acceptance of failure. The museum aims to stimulate productive discussion about failure and inspire us to take meaningful risks."
There are approximately 150 flops in the museum which is founded and curated by Dr. Samuel West, a psychologist with a focus on organizational psychology. His doctoral thesis from Lund University studied “Playing at Work: Organizational Play as a Facilitator of Creativity.”
As I read through the highlights of the Museum of Failure’s exhibits, I found these three failures — a warship, a hamburger and a bicycle — meaningful lessons that are also transferable to internal communications.
⛵ #1 The Vasa Warship
King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden commissioned this prestigious ship in 1628. Decorated with coats of arms and cannons, it was a technological marvel of the 17th century.
“Upon completion, the impressive ship was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. However, the Vasa was dangerously top heavy and unstable. The admiral and the designers tested its stability, and knew of its flaws. Despite this, she was impatiently ordered out to sea for battle in Poland. On the way out of the harbor, the wind picked up and the ship foundered. Water rushed through the cannon openings and the ship slowly sank to the bottom.”
✏️ Lesson: Don’t rush! If you’re not completely confident about your mission, message or delivery — wait. Plus, a warning for future entrepreneurs from professors in Smithsonian Magazine:
“The management world has a name for human problems of communication and management that cause projects to founder and fail–Vasa syndrome. The events of August 10, 1628 had such a big impact that the sinking is a case study business experts still read about. ‘An organization’s goals must be appropriately matched to its capabilities,” write Kessler, Bierly and Gopalakrishnan. In the case of the Vasa, ‘there was an overemphasis on the ship’s elegance and firepower and reduced importance on its seaworthiness and stability,’ they write, ‘which are more critical issues.’ Although it was originally designed to carry 36 guns, it was sent to sea with twice that number.” -Smithsonian Magazine
🍔 #2 McDonald’s Arch Deluxe
This 1990’s fancy new hamburger cost $300 million to research, produce and promote. It targeted adults rather than children who gravitated toward the brand’s Happy Meal. The burger was not typical fast food:
“Crisp lettuce, mustard-mayo sauce, peppered bacon, tomato, and beef on a bakery-style potato roll. It was the creation of Andrew Selvaggio, a fine dining chef from Chicago’s legendary Pump Room.”
There was even a lavish NYC launch party at Radio City Music Hall featuring Ronald McDonald. But, ultimately the burger projected to bring in 1 billion in sales flopped. Learn more about this story from Eater.
✏️ Lesson: Know your audience well and pilot your publicity campaign before going public. Learn more in this Case Study from Harvard Business School.
“Students evaluate McDonald's new Arch Deluxe hamburger, targeted to adults, including the launch program and the underlying marketing strategy in light of the company's skills, resources, and brand position.” -Harvard Business School
🚲 #3 The Itera Plastic Bicycle
This Swedish bicycle was intended to be half the price of a regular bike, but it turned out to be double the cost. The bike was delivered unassembled IKEA style, but parts were missing from the box. It also wobbled and was not sturdy to ride!
“In response to the 1974 oil crisis, a small group of Swedish engineers obtained government funding to develop a bicycle completely composed of fiber-reinforced composite plastics (FRP). By 1980, the Itera Development Center AB was designing, producing, and marketing injection molded plastic bicycles to a seemingly interested market. However, when the first bicycles were delivered in 1982, the problems with quality assurance and design began stacking up against the company.” -Lane Motor Museum
✏️ Lesson: Before launching, run your project through safety tests — literally and figuratively — to ensure it doesn’t fall apart when it goes live. Also, double-check your work for all the pieces to be shipped.
Normalize Talking About Failure
With The Museum of Failure, Dr. West hopes we talk about failure more frequently — “It’s ok to share your inadequacies, failures or unrefined ideas without being negatively judged,” he shares in this interview.
Here are three ideas for incorporating failure into our conversations at work:
📝 #1 Encourage Leaders to Share
Research from Harvard Business School shows us that it’s important for people who are leading organizations to share failures. In Why Managers Should Reveal Their Failures, professors emphasize that managers can “win over their colleagues with a simple approach: by sharing the failures they encountered on the path to success.”
This can start even before the working world, such as when Princeton Professor Johannes Haushofer published his resume of failures. He told CNBC: “Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible.”
🎤 #2 Host F*#k Up Nights
This global series in over 300 cities uses “failure and the power of storytelling to create events that change the culture of work.” Attend a group event with your colleagues — virtually or in person! They also host customized events for organizations.
The team building programs and workshops include a “fun intro talk to bring attendees to a growth mindset, Speaker coaching and manual on storytelling, curation of speaker stories and presentations, moderation introducing speakers and guiding Q&A, and design materials for your internal communications.” They’ve worked with many recognizable brands, such as Accenture, L’Oreal and World Bank Group to name a few.
🗄️ #3 Organize Failure Files
In the past, I organized a series where I invited one external guest (related to our organization) to share their failure story and lessons learned on Failure Friday. I gave a few prompts to begin the conversation, keeping each talk to 7 minutes with the opportunity to ask live questions for an interactive experience.
As an alternative, you could also invite colleagues to share their stories in a virtual filing cabinet such as a channel or group for an ongoing conversation on the topic. To be successful, employees must feel comfortable being vulnerable and trust their colleagues in order to share.
In the spirit of embracing stories of failure to learn for the future, what’s a work failure story you’ve experienced (communications related optional)?
Share in the comments or reply to us (theswitchboard at substack.com) to be featured in a future publication — anonymously, of course, if you wish.
It’s so fascinating to learn that there’s a Museum of Failure! I believe we can learn more from failure than success, though it’s possible to take away the wrong lesson, namely that we should give up. I haven’t got a specific work story to share. I will just say in the worlds of journalism, teaching, blogging and recipe experimentation where I have dwelled, failure seems to be the requisite ingredient for ultimate success and creativity. How can we come up with something better if we didn’t first learn what didn’t work? As the saying goes, you have to break a lot of eggs to make a cake--and maybe drop a few too!☺️