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3M: Fail or Die

Posted by: Matthew Vella on April 22, 2008

g52.jpgAn interesting theme from yesterday’s talks has been the importance of failure. Chip Heath, the author of Made to Stick, told the now famous innovation anecdote of 3M’s development of the Post-It note. It’s a well-known story but his re-telling seems to have stuck (no pun) with people and become a topic of conversation between sessions and at dinner and rinks post-Day 1.

Heath told an extended version of the story, which I hadn’t heard. The company’s R&D department created an adhesive that didn’t stick, a product that should have died. A group of researchers led by Art Fry believed the adhesive could be used on a bookmark-like product similar to what would eventually become the Post-It note. He approached the company’s marketing department which told him, even during extensive market research, consumers had never asked for pieces of paper that didn’t quite stick.

To circumvent these short-sighted managers, Fry had a large number of Post-It-like prototypes made up and distributed to the secretary pool. Once the copmany’s administrative assistants had taken to the new tool, affixing them to documents circulating in front of vice-presidents and other upper-level executives, Fry cut off the supply and directed the complaints to the marketing department which had red-lighted the idea in the first place. The rest is history.

From this, Heath’s lesson for experience designers here at the conference is that stories of failure are often the most instructive. More over, Heath suggested that designers may need to “selectively ignore feedback,” something many of the designers in the room seemed to agree with. A product manager sitting near me whispered to himself, “Companies that can’t fail, often do,” a nice encapsulation of the mood in the room.

Reader Comments

John Caddell

April 23, 2008 3:28 PM

Matt, I'm delighted to see you pick up on the worthiness of failure. Most companies abhor failure and incent employees to cover it up, rather than examining and seeing what can come out of the failure. The learnings are almost limitless, and frequently, as in the case of the Post-It, other successful products can come directly out of the "failure"--which can never happen to the prototype that is thrown away or the code that's sent to the bit bucket.

A related area involves failed research. Most research that doesn't validate its initial hypothesis is discarded. Opening this research data up to other investigators may unearth new discoveries. Perhaps it's time we "recycled" more than just newspapers and plastic bottles.

Celebrating mistakes and failures is the main focus of, a site I've created where people can share stories of failure, both to teach and to learn from.

Anyone interested in this topic is invited to join up and share their own stories. It's simple and free, no obligation, etc., etc., but a small experiment to see if we can start pushing back on the "succeed or die" culture.

Regards, John

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