Failure is a natural byproduct of true experimentation – Rebecca Ribbing, Museum of Failure

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when my curiosity about failure began, but I do know how it happened. I’m reading a lot of success stories in the media and I see a ton of personal social media profiles from people I admire full of achievements. Then, I look at my days and they don’t seem to have a lot in common.

The first question that comes to mind is: am I the only one? Second, the people I admire seem to conquer everything they tackle. Don’t they have struggles along the way like I do? Isn’t this normal? Is everything easy for them? Do they succeed at everything they do? And so on.

I want to bring some light into the matter, as dim as it is (for the moment), to see if those with big wins win all the time or we all go through the same stuff, we just don’t talk about it (yet).

I met Rebecca Ribbing, who works as Project Manager and Head of Research for Healthcare failures at the Museum of Failure in Sweden, at TEDxCluj 2018, when she gave a talk about, you guessed it, failure.

In my attempt to shed some light on it, I thought, who would be more suitable to start my failure interviews series than someone who works in the ”industry”?

What I liked about her TEDxCluj talk is that she shared real practical lessons, not just platitude remarks you hear every step of the way.

Somehow, after a long day of speeches, she agreed to spend her time answering some of my curiosities and I’m truly grateful for it. Six months later, after lost communications and lots of holidays in between, we managed to reconnect and put together the first failure interview. Thank you!

We talked about:

  • failure from individual and organizational perspectives
  • personal and professional stories of past failures
  • how big companies react when they are featured in the museum

We celebrate success all the time. Why did you decide to do the same with failure?

With the Museum of Failure, we wanted to shed light on the fact that most innovations fail, and the museum was a way to stimulate meaningful discussion about failure. We also wanted to highlight failures and open up a dialogue about them because every failure is unique and encompasses so much valuable learning potential. Since our society is so obsessed with success and attributes such value to it, we underestimate the importance and normalcy of failures. So many learning opportunities can come from studying our failures, both as individuals and in organizations.

What is failure?

With the Museum of Failure we decided to stick to the academic definition of failure, ”failure is a deviation from expected and desired results”. Most view it as the opposite of success. We do not want our visitors to equate the word failure with, for example, bankruptcy or defeat, but a process whereby the goals that were set from the beginning (and expected) were not met. Many of the failures we have showcased in the museum come from companies that are still very much alive and thriving. We also want to highlight the importance of ”failing intelligently”, not all failures are good failures. With our message, we try to encourage failing on a small scale and making use of deliberate experimentation so as to reduce the cost of inevitable failures. Failure is a natural byproduct of true experimentation and trying something new. Failing intelligently can be achieved by becoming adept at identifying failures, analyzing failures and making use of experimentation as a means of learning.

Fear of failure, where does it come from?

Fear of failure can be explained by a multitude of factors. For example, a company culture that penalizes failure and rewards success certainly provides a barrier to learning from failure and instills fear of failure in its organizational culture.

Fear of failure also stems from our individual psychology, where failure is associated with feelings of shame and disgrace. All of us have a strong fundamental human desire to be held in high regard by others, you want people to like you and value you and not see you as a failure so we instinctively ignore or disassociate ourselves from our own failures. I would go so far as to say that all of us have, at some point, edited out mistakes from the resume of our lives.

Cultural factors also play a role in the development of ”fear of failure”, as some cultures are more or less accepting of failure. Acceptance of failure is essential to all progress (for children’s education, technology innovation, social development etc.) and we need to overcome (or at least increase the understanding of) the psychological discomfort we experience when admitting and constructively discussing failure.

Common phrases such as ”failure is not an option” become etched into our minds and accepted as truths, affecting us in all that we do as humans – it hinders us in life and work and makes us scared of trying novel things. We truly need to normalize failure in our personal lives and in the organizational culture because we can’t learn from failures if we don’t discuss and analyze them.

You are currently touring the world with over 100 failures from big companies. Can you give some insight on how visitors react?

By now we have had over 30,000 visitors to the museum, both in Sweden and Los Angeles. Our visitors tend to get very inspired by reading about the failures of (often) big corporations, it makes them feel that failure is always possible – no matter how many resources you have, and maybe it’s not as bad as we think it is. The museum also serves as a motivator for daring to put yourself out there, try new things and leave your own comfort zone. One example we have is a couple visiting the museum in Sweden from Spain – they told us that seeing all of those big company failures inspired them to try and change the breakfast menu at their bed and breakfast back home. Our visitors are also very keen on confessing their own personal failures – we have a failure confession booth where many hundreds of people have disclosed their individual failings. Talking about failures has proved to be a liberating experience for many of us working with the museum and our visitors.

Did any of the companies which you exhibit contact you?

Colgate contacted us. Colgate launched a line of frozen dinners in the 1980s and this was a mistake because the brand was strongly associated with oral hygiene and strong mint flavors, rather than food. For the museum, we showed a reconstructed package of ”Colgate lasagna” with a good measure of artistic freedom. When the Museum of Failure was written about in the international press, a legal representative from Colgate called and sternly informed us that nobody at the company recognized the lasagna. Colgate seems to have a bad memory of that failure and they refused to co-operate with our interest in the Colgate lasagna TV dinner.

Some companies are better at showcasing and admitting their failures while others try to hide their mistakes.

Did you fail along the way with the museum?

Many times. Choosing the wrong business partner was the largest failure for the museum. Not only did this designer make decisions that nearly bankrupted the museum, he has now sued us. On a lighter note, when Samuel first bought the internet domain name, he accidentally misspelled ”museum”, 🙂

The road from conception to creation when one gets an idea like the Museum of Failure is always paved with hardships and missteps like most projects or innovations are.

Can you name your favorite failure and why, the one you find the funniest and one that has a lot of popularity among the museum’s guests?

One of my favorite failures from the museum is the invention of Nylon because it’s a great example of the benefits that can come from analyzing failure and it’s also a great example of the negative consequences that can come from overlooking failures and ignoring them. Many scientific discoveries have resulted from those who were attentive to simple mistakes in the lab, think of Alexander Fleming and his discovery of Penicillin. Researchers in the early German polymer labs in the 1920’s occasionally made the mistake of leaving a Bunsen burner lit over the weekend. Upon discovering this mistake on Monday mornings, the chemists simply threw away the overcooked results and went on with their day. Ten years later a chemist at a DuPont polymer lab made the same mistake, however, rather than simply discarding the mistake, the DuPont chemist gave the result some analysis and discovered that the fibers had congealed and this discovery led to the invention of nylon in 1935. If the German chemists had paid attention to their simple mistake, they might have had a decade head start in nylon and could have dominated the market for years. This story is very inspiring and it serves as a reminder to always analyze those bumps in the road, for they may lead to something interesting or fruitful.

The failure that I find the funniest and a failure that is very popular with our guests is Olestra (Pringles made with Olestra), the fat-free chips that caused side effects like diarrhea, stomach cramps, and anal leakage. From Olestra, we can learn about the great importance of doing plenty of testing before a product is launched. Another reason why visitors love this failure, in addition to the obvious humor, is that it again reminds them of the fact that some of the world’s best-known companies can fail big too.

And another highly appreciated failure is Bic for Her (the pink and purple glitter pen made especially for women in 2011) which highlights the importance of diversity in organizations – if Bic had women with a voice on their innovation teams, I don’t think this product would ever have existed.

Speaking of funny, it’s easy to laugh now at all sorts of failures from the past. Is this a constructive way to face it?

Laughing at past mistakes and failures can have a liberating effect. Depending on the magnitude of the mistake or failure, it is important to analyze the failure and understand why it happened and what can be learned from it. Studies have shown that people who have the ability to laugh at their mistakes and themselves are less prone to chronic stress. Laughing at past failures will help you relieve stress and reduce the time spent worrying about things you cannot change; humor can indeed increase your emotional well-being.

Can you name a personal failure, how did it made you feel and what did you do?

A few years ago I made the decision to go to nursing school instead of continuing my studies in Psychology, partly because I felt lost and divided in my mind on what to do with my life and I wanted a job that would allow me to move around the world. I studied three years and earned my degree, but all through nursing school I had a strong sense that I had made the wrong choice, I always felt a longing to study my favorite subject – Psychology. I graduated nursing school, got a job as a nurse, and even though it was rewarding work and I met such extraordinary people during those years, I still had that gnawing feeling that I had made the wrong career choice. So, eventually, after a few years in nursing, I decided to go back to school to pursue my passion, become a Psychologist. I started viewing my choice, not as a failure, but as an important part of my life and I tried to use it to my advantage (and I’ve worked as a nurse all throughout my current studies). I am so glad that I am a nurse, despite my doubts, as nursing has given me so much great experience and many qualities that I now use in my journey towards becoming a clinical and organizational psychologist. I truly feel that knowledge and education are never wasted.

From your experience, when your fail affects an entire team, what should you do?

Nothing beats honesty and openness. I would tell the team about my failure. We can all contribute to creating a more accepting environment for failure, mistakes, and uncertainties at work. By trying to understand every individual colleague’s full experience, rather than take for granted that you know where they are coming from, we can increase the transparency of our working relationships. A lot of conflicts at work or in teams arise from misunderstandings and not fully understanding the situation, so in general, we need to reduce ambiguity and promote transparency and acceptance.

You have a background in Psychology. I believe as human beings we tend to define ourselves based on our most recent experiences. How can I not feel like a failure when nothing seems to go my way?

We can easily build up rigid notions of who we are and what traits we encompass, but many psychological schools of thought now try to encourage people to think of themselves as ever-changing, constantly evolving individuals. We need to promote acceptance of both strengths and weaknesses. Emotional suffering, though incredibly painful, will come and go throughout our lives. There is no such thing as a ”normal” person who is always happy, we are all affected by ups and downs, failures and successes. Idolization of success and relying too much on an achievement-based self-esteem can have detrimental effects on our mental health.

Also one can avoid using social media to compare oneself with others, as it’s not the biggest self-esteem booster. On Facebook or Instagram people mostly post moments of happiness and success but neglect to show the darker moments in life that we all inescapable experience. Social media gives many of us a false sense that everyone else is happy, beautiful, and fulfilled, and nothing can be further from the truth.

One quote that inspires me when I’m feeling weighed down by my failings is Jon Sinclair’s quote: ”Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo”.

One of my former bosses told me ”only who doesn’t work, doesn’t fail”. Can you educate your boss to have a constructive attitude towards failure? How about one’s peers?

By highlighting the latest evidence-based research on the topic of failure and psychological safety, you as an individual are taking the first step towards implementing research results in clinical practice. Even just by talking more about failure, opening up a discussion about it with your peers and your boss, you are helping to de-stigmatize personal and professional failure.

One way to create a culture where failure is accepted and we can learn from it is by reinforcing the practice of psychological safety – it’s a team climate where it is okay to fail and be vulnerable without being punished by your team. The essence of psychological safety is a sense of confidence that your team won’t embarrass you, criticize, reject or punish you for speaking up about your failings or questions. Creating this environment will help you bond more with your coworkers, strengthen your team’s productivity and be a catapult for further innovation in your team. A way to reinforce psychological safety is to publicize failures as a means of learning and convincing your boss to implement policies that take blame away from individuals when failures do arise.

If you are interested in reading more about psychological safety and innovation in organizations, you could check out Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson’s research on the subject or check out a great article in the New York Times: What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. Google’s Project Aristotle highlighted the importance of psychological safety in its investigation of team culture and what makes a good team. The study underlined the importance of empathy towards team members (by showing an interest in the feelings of your coworkers) and taking turns while talking, for equal amounts in the team, among other things.


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