Conversations in Management: Museum of Failed Products

These are real people who sincerely want to do their best, and then, well, things happen.

                Carol Sherry

Ben-gay AspirinFor many of us, the last time we visited a museum we arrived in a yellow bus and were escorted by a teacher and a chaperone. The best part of the “field trip” was that we weren’t in school and it provided an opportunity for plenty of horseplay. The following day, those in my social set frequently endured moments of embarrassment when our teacher grilled us on what we had learned from the exhibits. Common responses included, “there were exhibits?” and the ever popular, though perhaps more dispiriting to our long-suffering schoolmarm, “what’s an exhibit?”

But we all grow up, times change and today savvy corporate types are paying upwards of $5,000 a pop to visit a nondescript museum on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The building itself isn’t much more than a large warehouse and oddly enough, inside it resembles a grocery store.  The layout isn’t accidental because the museum’s collection is made up entirely of one of each kind of product you’re likely to find in your local grocer’s. There are more than 110,000 items on display and about 400 new products are added each month. But here’s where it gets interesting. Because 90% of new products fail, this 40 year old collection has inadvertently become the Museum of Failed Products. Cruising the aisles, you have to wonder how some of this stuff ever made it into production. Feel a headache coming on? How about some Ben-Gay Aspirin? You might need it after contemplating a breakfast of Banana Juice, microwavable scrambled eggs in a tube washed down with a Pepsi Breakfast Cola. You’ll want to look your best at the office so how about shampooing with Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt or Look of Buttermilk? After a hard day at work, why not kick back with a caffeinated beer or, if you’re on the wagon, a Coors bottled water? Dinner time already? Head to the freezer and pull out a Colgate Kitchen Entrée. Always tasty but even better when seasoned with Heinz’s EZ Squirt blue ketchup.

Carol Sherry, curator of NewProductWorks—the official name of the museum—rightly points out that failed products result from the good intentions of creative people. Sometimes something is pulled from the shelf for reasons that couldn’t be foreseen (at least by law abiding folks) such as the breath mints that resembled crack. On the other hand, nothing makes it to the shelf without much deliberation by executives around a conference room table. That’s why they troop to the museum and shell out the high admission price. The museum functions as a sort of corporate memory for what went wrong. In business today we celebrate success and develop amnesia about failures. That makes it easy to forget what we might have learned from our mistakes and in some cases, actually lets us repeat them. The executives and designers troll the museum to relearn lessons and perhaps even gain some inspiration. What they discover is obviously worth the price of admission.

Too bad all industries—and particularly the public sector—don’t have their own versions of the museum to consult. Perhaps they should hire some of those otherwise unemployable history majors to maintain an archive of failed initiatives. That way past failures could be examined before charging ahead with likely-to-fail new programs. The truth is, we can learn as much from failure as we can from success. We just need to stop being ashamed of our mistakes. Let’s try celebrating failure for a change! Think it over while enjoying a Cactus Snapple this afternoon.   —Ebert

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