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 serious thing. 

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 understand why a project failed. Deriving real, actionable take-aways from failure is an important, and I think under-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 experience, vendor relationships, etc.—can lead to important insights. Failure is not just part of innovation, it is a window 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.

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