The Museum of Failure


16 January 2018

One of the central exhibits at the newly opened Museum of Failure in Helsingborg, Sweden, is a slightly scuffed first-generation Segway from 2001. In a museum devoted to flopped products, gadgets, and business ventures, it stands as an unlikely centrepiece. Pop cultural reference may have the Segway down as the quintessential twerp-mobile (think of Gob’s cringeworthy manoeuvring on the vehicle in Arrested Development), but many variants of this self-balancing electric scooter are still in production today, and continue to enjoy relative popularity. The city of Barcelona, for instance, recently banned their use in the historic city centre and seafront areas, having found itself inundated with Segway-riding tourists. In short, it’s not exactly a flop.

“So why is it here?” I ask Samuel West, the organisational psychologist who directs the Museum of Failure and has amassed most of its collection. “Because I think it illustrates what a failure is,” he says. “The definition of a failure is a deviation from a desired outcome. The expectation for the Segway when it launched in 2001 was that future urban infrastructure would be built around it, and that the Segway would be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” Sixteen years on, it seems safe to say that cities around the world have not reconfigured themselves to accommodate the Segway. “Had they [Dean Kamen, the Segway’s inventor, and John Doerr, its chief investor] just said ‘Hey, we’ve got a fun thing to ride,’ it wouldn’t be in the Museum of Failure,” explains West.

The question of definitions is an interesting one, especially given the scope of the 70 products on display in the single-room exhibition space on Helsingborg’s Södergatan. There are medical instruments (a mid-20th-century orbitoclast, used to perform lobotomies), toys (My Friend Cayla, invented in 2014, an interactive doll banned by German authorities because it sends everything your child tells it to a US company which can then sell that information to third parties), and beverages (Coca-Cola BlāK, a foul-tasting concoction that targeted the swelling numbers of premium coffee drinkers in the 2000s).

When consumer products deviate from their makers’ desired outcome, it usually means they don’t hit sales targets. “But there can be other failures, not just bad sales,” says West. The orbitoclast failed, horrifically, to perform its desired remedial function. Aimed at “curing” a host of neuroses, the psychosurgical procedure of lobotomy – which consisted of severing connections between the prefrontal cortex and part of the brain’s frontal lobes – tended to leave patients in a near-vegetative state, or dead. Other products failed to reach their desired technological potential. The website, displayed in the museum on a clunky 1990s desk computer, was live from 1999 for a year, and supported proto-versions of most of the functions of a contemporary e-commerce site. However, the restricted bandwidth of most households at the time rendered the site impossibly sluggish to navigate. The website was only a failure in that it was ahead of its time.

Bic's pastel pen for women.

The Museum of Failure takes its basic model from the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia (“the only museum in the world that’s better than mine,” says West), where relatively unspectacular objects are used to tell complex stories about human behaviour and interaction. “We know that most innovations fail. In fact, most of the things in your magazine will fail,” says West, “80 to 90 per cent if you want a number. But we only glorify and focus on the successes.” Failure is as rife as it is repressed, and this applies to individuals as well as companies, he notes: “I see it everywhere. ‘Oh, I’m 40 years old and I’ve lost weight’. Or ‘I quit my boring job and now I run a sourdough bakery and I’m happy’. Or ‘I have sex 3.8 times a week and my kids have shiny teeth’. The more that we glorify success, the more we demonise failure.”

Nothing piques interest like censure, of course. When I visit the museum on a rainy weekday afternoon, it’s packed; its ‘Failure Confession Booth’ is plastered with bright post-it submissions; and my interview with West attracts a pair of curious visitors who chime in with their own reflections on the display. When themuseum opened earlier this year, camera teams from the BBC, CNN and Associated Press descended on Helsingborg, a small town of 135,00; Christiane Amanpour presented CNN’s segment on the launch. Christiane Amanpour.

The Museum of Failure’s success lies in how powerfully it can resonate with visitors on a personal level. Failure is funny (unless it’s your own), precisely because it is repressed. The exhibits elicit a whole host of titillating feelings: schadenfreude, perhaps, at discovering that even a multinational can flop with a product like Crystal Pepsi (“It would’ve been nice if I’d made sure the product tasted good,” mused David Novak, who developed the drink in the early 1990s); or a smug sense of superiority at the stupidity of No More Woof, a crowdfunded device from 2013-14 that claimed it could translate your dog’s brainwaves into human language (for the record,it couldn’t). But it is on an organisational level that West wants to pose complex questions about failures and why they happen. “The majority of innovations will fail and that’s where we can learn about the process and what to avoid. I can understand that Coca-Cola don’t air their dirty laundry and publicly confess to failure. But even internally, there’s not much learning going on,” explains West. “That’s because learning from failure isn’t straightforward. It’s complex, it takes resources, and it means you have to be open to criticising yourself, your team or your skills. It means coping with a lot of ambiguity, not just a rational flow chart of what went wrong. And companies are just like us as individuals. There’s this term called emotional avoidance: when you’ve failed somehow, just thinking about it can hurt.”

A fibre-optic Lego sets that cost more to produce than the retail price.

“Isn’t self-help and management literature full of failure, and how to learn from it?” I ask West. “Yes,” he says. “But the problem is that the majority of what you find on failure is always told from the pedestal of success.” That failure is only acceptable as part of a teleology towards eventual success is suggested by the plethora of book titles that follow the formula of Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down: Bouncing Back in Business and Life (2014), Henry Petroski’s Success Through Failure (2006) or Joey Brown’s The Road to Success is Paved with Failure (2001). Even Harvard Business Review, the holy grail of business journalism, couched its 2011 special issue on failure (“The F Word,” as the editors had it) with aspirational quotes about Thomas Edison never failing, only finding 10,000 ways in which the lightbulb did not work. “I’ve really tried to avoid that,” says West, although the Museum of Failure itself is not immune to such meta-narratives. The phrase, “Learning is the only way to turn failure into success” greets you on the landing page of its website and elsewhere in its marketing. Perhaps this has to do with the museum’s funding, which comes from Vinnova, the Swedish innovation authority. Industry, I assume, isn’t interested in total and irredeemable failure per se.

Yet it ought to be. For as much as the business and self-help merchants proselytise the merits of learning from failure, they do not reflect the ways that companies and organisations deal with it in practice. Assessing, unconditionally, the reasons why things fail can lead to uncomfortable but crucial truths about organisational psychology. Take “go fever”, for instance, an informal term used to describe the collective pressure to commence or rush a project through to completion when a substantial amount of time, money, and energy has already been sunk into it, even though sizeable problems or risks may be at hand. An Apple Newton, a “personal digital assistant” that became synonymous withcrap technology in the mid-1990s, is on display at the museum. “The biggest feature of the Apple Newton was the handwriting recognition technology,” says West. “It cost millions to develop, and took a long time. But they ended up launching the product knowing the handwriting recognition didn’t work. They were pressured by the marketing department, and launched it thinking they could correct things later. Well, they couldn’t. It took them a year, and by that time people had already dismissed the Newton as a flop.”

Go fever and similar forms of groupthink are not restricted to the corporate realm. Besides the orbitoclast, one of the most chilling items on display at the Museum of Failure is a synthetic trachea. It was used in a supposedly pioneering procedure developed by the Swiss-Italian thoracic surgeon Paolo Macchiarini from 2011 to 2013, where, rather than giving tracheal cancer patients human windpipe transplants, 3D-printed plastic ones were coated with the patient’s stem cells and used for the regenerative surgeries. “There was a lot of excitement around stem cells at the time, and the idea that the body wouldn’t reject [the synthetic trachea] would’ve been the biggest revolution ever if it had worked,” says West. But Macchiarini, who had bagged major EU research grants for Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the most prestigious medical research facility in Scandinavia (it oversees the panel that awards the Nobel Prize in medicine), had manipulated and fabricated some of his research findings. “His peers were saying ‘This doesn’t work’ and Karolinska was saying ‘We’ve got EU money and we’re going to operate on as many people as possible.’ Nine people died as a result.”

A toxic toothpaste.

A complex series of systemic failures underpin this exhibit. But, argues West, it was the absence of “psychological safety” at Karolinska that led to the monumentality of the fuck-up. “You have to have a culture within an organisation of listening to the people who aren’t so positive; a culture where people can share doubts and pose stupid questions without being penalised,” he says. “What happened at Karolinska was that anyone who was anti was excluded.”

Today, Macchiarini is universally disgraced and rightly regarded as the chief culprit of the scandal at Karolinska. But apportioning blame to individuals is a thorny matter in almost all of the exhibits at the Museum of Failure, even the plastic trachea. Writing in the Harvard Business Review’s issue on failure, the leadership scholar Amy C. Edmondson noted the following: “When I ask executives to […] estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits – perhaps 2 per cent to 5 per cent. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70 per cent to 90 per cent.” That discrepancy, even if anecdotal, is staggering in its implications. While accountability may be key to the running of any complex organisation, a tendency to individualise failure seems woefully counter-productive if employees are consistently blamed for problems that are, in fact, systemic 70 to 90 per cent of the time. Like in so much of the self-help literature, failure (and success) is almost invariably presented as being down to individual actions and choices. Structural inequalities, systemic rigging, or even just sheer bad luck are rarely considered in the analysis. So much for promotion of “psychological safety”.

A drumstick you can only use on the high-hat.

What can be done in the face of the failure phobia that dominates so many organisations as a result? Management pundits tout trouble-shooting exercises, so-called “pre-mortems”, and devil’s advocate reviews. But West stresses the importance of actually sinking time and resources into analysing failures after they occur. “The aviation industry is an exception,” he says. “When an airplane crashes they don’t just note the weather was bad and then file a report. They spend resources on really understanding what has happened, finding primary explanations, such as bad weather, and then secondary explanations, which is to ask why the pilot decided to fly in bad weather.” This sort of review can help to uncover potentially hazardous organisational cultures within companies, as was the case in the devastating Bolivian crash that killed most of Brazil’s Chapecoense football team in 2016. “They had bad weather and didn’t have enough fuel,” says West. “It turns out that there was a macho culture in that company which made them fly anyway.”

Coming to the end of my tour with West, I ask for his thoughts on planned obsolescence – products designed to fail in order to hurry along a repeat purchase. In-built obsolescence has increasingly become common in consumer tech gadgets since the 1960s and 70s, with ruinous environmental effects. As Darren Blum, a senior industrial engineer at Pentagram Design who builds portable devices and computers for HP and others told the Wall Street Journal in 2002: “We joke that we design landfills.” There is no example of such a product in the Museum of Failure, however. West mulls this over for a moment, and concludes that “the only way [such an item] would fit into the museum is if the product was designed to be non-functional or break in a specific time period, and then failed to do so.” If it failed to fail, in other words. But shift the perspective from the maker’s profit towards a more holistic view, and it becomes harder to see those burgeoning landfills as a desirable outcome. Such a shift might bring more, let’s say, epic fails into focus. Perhaps a topic for the next display.

Industrial Revolution, Monday 22 January, 12–12:45pm, Maison & Objet.