“If you’re not prepared to be wrong,
you’ll never come up with anything original.”
~ Sir Ken Robinson
Risk. Failure. These are words that conjure up negative connotations despite our frantic efforts to put a positive spin on disappointment. We want our efforts to always end in success especially when we expend significant amounts of energy putting plans into action. We are motivated by the possibility of innovation and the opportunity to be creative, but if “necessity is the mother of invention, then failure is the father of success.” We cannot experience one without the other. While risks exist in every decision, we can leverage outside of the box thinking by focusing on our strengths.
Some of the least expensive lessons we learn are from understanding the mistakes of others. For example, once upon a time in 1806, William Colgate founded a starch, soap, and candle factory in New York City. Following a series of acquisitions, Palmolive bought the Colgate company, which then became Colgate-Palmolive Company. Sprinkled among its 200-year history, Colgate introduced toothpaste in a collapsible tube in 1896. Ajax cleanser was launched in 1947 and Palmolive dishwashing liquid was placed on shelves in 1966. Following this string of product success, Colgate decided to move beyond toothpaste and soap. In 1982, they launched Colgate Kitchen Entrees, a range of frozen ready meals. Yes, you read this correctly, customers could now eat Colgate lasagna and brush their teeth afterwards with Colgate minty fresh toothpaste. The company known for oral hygiene tiptoed into the world of frozen foods. Now, they hold a coveted spot in Dr. Samuel West’s Museum of Failure, but it is a mistake that Colgate rarely acknowledges.
Expanding a brand is a natural progression in the life of any business. Organizations initially develop products that are designed to meet specific needs and seek to build on the momentum. We see institutions follow the same path. Daily we read articles of brick-and-mortar institutions seeking to develop online programs or community colleges looking to offer baccalaureate degrees. On the surface they all appear to be great ideas likely to meet a growing need. However, the problem initially lies with the words “on the surface.”
Some organizations can make it work, just look at Amazon. Jeff Bezos seems to have discovered the secret sauce behind online retail domination. However, upon closer examination, his foray into clothing, grocery, and film all have one common denominator, a focus on customers in an online space. He spent years refining Amazon, the customer service culture, packaging, and delivery aspects. He understood that to make Amazon the “earth’s most customer-centric company,” consistency was key. Branching into another retail industries became a natural extension when it aligned with the company’s mission.
Colgate might have launched the entrée foods division in support of its mission, but it forgot to align its ambitious endeavors with customer perception. Colgate learned this lesson the hard way and after much expense to the division’s bottom line. This is very similar to institutions who branch out an offer online programs or competency-based programs, for example. If you are Western Governors University, years of experience has resulted in the institution paving the way for adult learners to earn degrees by completing competency-based programs. For Southern New Hampshire University, years of student-centered focus has resulted in a way for first generation and military students to earn online degrees regardless of geographic location. However, these successes do not necessarily translate across all institutions. Some institutions implement programs with the best of intentions, but lack in execution, effective branding, or fulfillment of their mission. These failures do not make these institutions less relevant, but allow them to better understand who they serve.
Customers wanted to buy Colgate products “associated with health and oral hygiene.” They wanted minty fresh not pasta sauce. Risk accompanies innovation and failure often follows creativity. This does not mean we give up. We use this information to motivate and inform our next great idea. Meanwhile, we look at our beautiful disaster and know that while it did not result in the success we desired, it resulted in the lesson we needed to learn.
What did you learn from your last beautiful disaster?