Failure is an emotive word whereas innovation is one that slides into social intercourse more easily. Yet any serious innovator knows that failure is often a precursor to the birth of any new product / service or process. Edison reputedly had 10 000 tries to invent the lightbulb. Sir James Dyson had 5127 prototypes for his dual cyclone vacuum cleaner. Sir Richard Branson’s failures are legendary, including Virgin Brides, Virgin condoms, and Virgin Coke. What separates Branson from most other leaders is his willingness to talk about his mistakes and learn from them.

I was called up by Sir Richard Branson’s first hire at Virgin Atlantic and recommended to contact a company called F*** Up Nights. My Virgin colleague David Tait had spoken at one of their events in NYC about some of Virgin’s more glorious failures and he thought I may have a story to share over the pond. Failure can be a much more powerful learning tool in business than success if we are willing to learn from it.

My greatest failure was when I sponsored an audacious record-breaking project to take 300 rock thrillseekers round the world, calling at the most prestigious music venues in the world. We were to make a “rockumentary film” to compare with cult classics like “This is Spinal Tap”, “The Blues Brothers” and “Wayne’s World”. I loaned my friend “English eccentric cult punk rocker and two hit wonder” John Otway the equivalent of £55 000 from my life savings to pay the deposit for the Airbus to Air Tahiti. The plane never took off literally or metaphorically, due to lack of cashflow … John “forgot” to tell me that he had not lined up the other investors when I put my money in 🙁

The story of this bizarre adventure is told in greater detail in “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise’. This video explains the tour concept and the quintessentially English eccentric that is John Otway:

Although the consequences were tragic in every way, there were tons of bittersweet moments in this “Comedy of Errors”, including:

  • How John’s “aviation expert” hired a jet that was too big to take off from John Lennon airport!
  • How we managed to book the Sydney Opera House for a punk rock concert, having been turned down by the Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Gardens and CBGB’s.
  • How John’s “professional travel agent” managed to lose 50% of the paid up passengers on the tour, effectively crippling the enterprise. It took my insertion of a an unemployed drummer at the travel agent’s offices to stabilise matters, although by this time, it was too late. The travel agent also printed thousands of leaflets for a week long residence at The Edinburgh Festival which arrived in Edinburgh AFTER the festival had ended !  You don’t need a business degree to know that it’s impossible to sell an idea if you produce your marketing materials after the opportunity is over.

The big lessons from this F*** Up are:

1. Meticulous execution is far more important than just having a bright idea – sweat the small stuff. In the case of the World Tour, our “recipe” was to take a fading rock star, add a great idea, execute the idea well and rejuvenate the star’s fortunes etc.

After a few months checking around the state of the project, it became clear that the tour team was more keen on dreaming rather than implementation. This is a deadly condition in most entrepreneurial projects, although it did have a hilarious set of consequences in the Monty Python style of project management, in this case, one of which is captured below:

 

2. John did not wish to listen to dissenting voices, having put his heart and soul into the project over several years. This is not a problem that is confined to the art world. For example, Pfizer’s unwillingness to encourage dissent over the failure of their inhalable insulin product Exubera cost them an uncool €2.8 billion.

3. The failure of the tour was a case of too much divergent thinking and too little convergence.

4. Dysfunctional teams produce dysfunctional results – I was brought in at a late stage (too late) and found significant problems with some of the chemistry and competence of the team, but by then I was committed to continue in order to do the best for my friend… (sad face).

 

5. When working with friends, therefore, even greater levels of due diligence are required.  Simply statedlove is blind.”

Our slide deck from the evening in London is attached below. Contact us to find out more about customised versions of the showcase around the world.

 

PETER COOK BIO:
Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers keynotes around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Author of and contributor to twelve books on business leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE.  His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for HIV / AIDS, Herpes and the development of Human Insulin. 18 years in academia and 18 + years running his businesses. All his life since the age of four playing music. He works with Sir Richard Branson’s first hire at Virgin Atlantic to give talks on Failure and it’s value in Success and writes for Virgin.

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