Why failure studies are equally important.
Over the last century, we have been lapping up works on success stories with great fervor. This has been one of the most sought-after genre and publications are constantly seeking the next big thing. Cinema too, had its share of contribution, and no doubt some truly memorable ones. Everyone wants to hear the rags to riches tale and why not?
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. — Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption
Human beings are driven by hope, and that is what keeps us afloat, propelling us to push the envelope. No doubt these success stories are inspirational, and without doubt the motivation that comes along ushers in rays of hope for those waiting for a turnaround. In contrast there is little interest on failure stories i.e., failed missions, projects gone awry, unsuccessful athletes, artists, writers etc., What could possibly have gone wrong for these failed missions or projects? A closer study on these stories would reveal tremendous opportunities for learning and possibly risk mitigation planning.
The successful failed Apollo 13
The spectacular success of Apollo 11 by putting man on moon was an avant-garde moment in engineering and opened up so many possibilities. The hurrahs and accolades that poured from all quarters, along with ravings about a gargantuan leap of mankind really gave the establishment (US) the much needed high. This success was followed up with the successful Apollo 12 and with this the subsequent missions were touted to be routine exercises. Then what went wrong with Apollo 13? The premature comments by the control team at Houston that “The spaceship is in good shape” and that everyone in the control room “Were bored to tears” were soon awakened by a rude shock with the explosion in oxygen tank 2 and its subsequent impact on tank 1. Soon desperate calls for ‘Houston we have a problem’ were on, and the subsequent decision abandoning of the mission.
There were many in theories that did the rounds on the failed mission. Some even superstitious ones like the unlucky number 13, or the unpropitious divine providence. Could the subsequent events that followed the spectacular success of Apollo 11 and 12, like the Vietnam war shift the attention and focus from the establishment. Or did the result of on-going war call for shrinking budgets and cutting corners and hence an impact on quality? Or did complacency creep in over the routine successful previous missions?
However, Apollo 13 did impact have one positive that stood out amidst the gloom of a failed mission. The tireless work put in by the team at Houston to bring the crew back to earth safely. This was heralded as a great achievement and dubbed the mission calling it “the most successful failed mission”.
Not so Yahoo!
Around the year 1994 Jerry Yang and David Filo founded Yahoo!. For many of us especially in the 90s who were witnessing the herald of the internet phenomenon, Yahoo unraveled a whole new world altogether. They were up there as early providers of email, search engine, news broadcasting, marketing etc., In other words at the right place, right time, and with need of the hour. But where did it all go wrong? Truth be told it never had an inauspicious beginning. Sales was constantly climbing, and it even survived the dotcom crash in early 2000s.
The glory days were short-lived, and the ebb started beginning with advertisers moving to other upcoming players. They were also losing the battle to Hotmail and Gmail or younger upstarts and later hit by social media giants like Facebook, Twitter etc. One of their key failures that will be talked about was their inability in stepping up the search engine curve. There was also the lost opportunity that was laid before them to buy google. In 1998 two Stanford graduates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page approached them, with a pitch on Innovative Search engine, for an offer price of 1 million dollars. This was declined as not being part of their vision and turned out to be a Himalayan blunder. There was also a series of churn at the leadership that did not help either. Bottom line, Yahoo! failed to define a vision as to what they really stood for.
Water World at sea
1995 witnessed the release of Kevin Costner’s most ambitious project “Water World”, touted to be one of the most expensive movie of the time. He apparently co-produced it along with Charles Gordon and John Davis and even roped in director Kevin Reynolds with whom he had had great success in the past. The post-apocalyptic film was about a world completely submerged in water after the melting of the polar ice cap, and the ensuing battle between small floating habitats of civilization fighting for dominance of resources. It had everything packaged for a blockbuster. The movie was in the making for over a year and created so much hype that film lovers across the world were agog with interest for its release. Great sets, jaw dropping action sequences, terrific visuals, A list actors, but it somehow failed to resonate with the audience.
The issues for film started from the script being re-written countless times. Beginning with a story revolving about a world being partly in water, to eventually completely in water the makers kept constantly changing and chopping the script. Even Kevin Costner admited they shouldn’t have rushed into production with an unfinished script. “We shouldn’t have green-lighted this movie until the script was finished. I do movies that I know are already written well. Except for Water world. From a producing standpoint, I tried to manage and control a story that was not there — and kept trying to build a story.” To compound the makers problems their director Kevin Reynolds quit midway owing creating differences and it was left in the hands of Kevin Costner to complete the film. The end result — A Box office disaster
World Cup bereft Messi
In the year 2005, a young diminutive dribbler from Argentina Lionel Andres Messi burst into the soccer scene, taking world by storm with incredible skills and pace. He had an uncanny ability of shooting goals from impossible angles. With over 700 appearances for Barcelona, Lionel Messi amassed over 630 goals and 260 plus assists. This wizard had made scoring over 30 goals per season and with multiple hat-tricks a routine affair. Arguably the greatest soccer player to play the sport and bringing in countless new soccer fans.
Interestingly these exploits have not helped his country win a world cup despite four of his consecutive appearances. This failure has been subject to a lot of savage criticism on both him personally and how he had been leveraged by the team and its management. Lack of leadership is one area that was glaring for Messi. His ability to get the team to rally behind him and win matches as in the likes of Diego Maradona. Constant infighting between the team and management was another issue prevalent during his world cup stints. There have been many instances of public fallouts between members of the team and Manager Jorge Sampaoli. The management also missed getting a good striking combo to partner Messi as in the likes of David Villa his Barcelona forward partner.
The above had case studies have been handpicked because of their social, political, cultural impact across various spectrums. One can delve into quite a handful of failed ventures / projects that went awry and a close study can reveal great insights on how they missed the plot. Some noteworthy projects on similar lines would be : Mass Polar Lander, Betamax, Black berry, New Coke, Block Buster, AirBus380 and many more. These studies can provide good insights and understanding on what could have been done better or understanding fundamental lapses.
Dreams are built on a million choices, billion failures and a few successes — Jared Leto