“We tried that before and it didn’t work”

Light bulb“We tried that before and it didn’t work.”

Man, I’ve heard that phrase a lot in my life. And truth be told, I’ve spoken it more than I care to admit.

But when something fails once in the past (or even more than once) should it be doomed forever?

I was lucky enough to hear futurist Bob Johansen speak last week at Resource Interactive’s excellent iCitizen conference, and he said something that really stuck with me:

“Almost nothing that happens in the future is new; it’s almost always something that has been tried and failed in the past.”

It’s so true. Think about Apple’s recent successes. MP3 players floundered before the iPod came along. Smartphones existed in limited fashion before the iPhone changed the landscape. And tablet computers had been an unrealized dream for quite some time. In discussing the tablet computer in 2001, Bill Gates famously said that “within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” When that didn’t happen, it wasn’t hard to find people predicting the tablet’s failure: “The Tablet? It isn’t RIP. But it’s certainly never going to be the noise Bill Gates thought.” But then along came the iPad and its million units sold in the first month alone. And don’t get me started on e-books, which many loudly proclaimed were bound to fail. Jeff Bezos begs to differ.

We humans have this tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater when something fails.

But the reality is that the success of any new idea — be it a product, a promotional idea, a merchandising technique, a sales tactic or website functionality —  is dependent on many different variables. Execution matters a lot. But we’re also dependent on many other situational contexts in the idea’s ecosystem, like timing, audience/customers, design, the economy, and the general randomness of life. Even slight tweaks to any of those variables can be the difference between success and failure.

In the others words, we shouldn’t automatically assume a past failure of an idea means the idea was bad. To be clear, I’m not suggesting there aren’t bad ideas that deserve to remain in the trash heap. However, we should at least break down the failure of an idea that we must have considered worthy at one point. (Why else would we have tried it in the first place?) What went wrong and what went right? Was it the execution? The positioning? The audience? Did we even have enough data points in our measurement that our findings of failure are statistically significant? Did it really fail?

Once we’ve broken the failure of the idea down into its component parts, we’ll have a better sense of whether or not the idea itself was at fault. We’ll have a much better understanding of the problems we would face if we tried it again, and that better understanding will give us a better platform from which to base our next attempt if we so desire.  We’ve all heard the stories of Thomas Edison’s thousands of failures before he finally got the incandescent light bulb right. Would we all be in the dark today if he gave up?

What do you think? Have you good ideas junked because of past failures? Was it the idea or something else?


  • By Jeff, May 11, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    “Would we all be in the dark today if he gave up?”
    — Excellent point!

  • By Ron Shevlin, May 11, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    This is perhaps the best comeback I’ve EVER heard.

    Was sitting in a meeting w/ a client, when someone said ““We tried that before and it didn’t work.”

    The senior exec leading the meeting replied “yes, but this time, you won’t be in charge of the effort.”

    I gained a new hero that day. 🙂

  • By Eric Feinberg, May 12, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    Execution matters a lot. Timing is everything. Amen.

  • By Xavier Casanova, May 12, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    No wonder some of the most exciting companies in the last 10 years (Google, Facebook) were started by 22 years old. But to be fair, this is a gray area – creativity vs experience. It doesn’t help to make the exact same mistake over and over again, unless there is an element that’s changed. It’s up to the one proposing an idea to prove why “it’s different this time”, and for the one criticizing to be a good listener. Goes back to leadership and good communication, in my opinion.

  • By Chris Eagle, May 12, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    Edison didn’t try to make a light bulb 1000 times; he tried to make 1000 different light bulbs, and finally got one that worked.

    Ideas are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad. If an idea is good and it doesn’t work, then you need to find out what you can change to make it work. Edison understood that the light bulb was a fundamentally good idea.

    There’s an old adage about a hot stove – and how touching one teaches some people to never touch a stove. “I can’t cook. I touched a stove once and burned the hell out of my hand.” Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to meet a lot of these people. They also tend to have stumps on their meeting tables…

  • By Vijay Kaundal, May 12, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    “Failure are the stepping stones of success” goes the old adage. Failing is not a problem but not analyzing a failure and not working on the shortcomings to correct what went wrong is definitely a problem. And sometimes getting a fresh pair of eyes helps in spotting the not so obvious to our eyes.

  • By Kevin Ertell, May 23, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Ron: That’s a classic line. I’m going to remember that one.

    Xavier: I really appreciate your points about the proposer showing what’s different and criticizer being a good listener. That combination, plus the mix of leadership and communication you mentioned, is a recipe for ultimate success.

    Chris: Great point about Edison developing 1,000 different light bulbs and just plain following through on a fundamentally good idea. And thanks for the nice tree stump reference. 🙂

    Vijay: Great points about recognizing failure as a stepping stone to success. We certainly need failures in order to learn. Your point about a fresh pair of eyes is a good one, especially if it comes in the sort of environment Xavier mentioned.

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