What Constitutes a Failure?

What Constitutes a Failure?

Often in business, we are so driven by the bottom line and quarterly targets that we won’t think twice about throwing out an innovative idea at the first sign of failure. It’s just too big of a risk to continue with something that is already showing signs of being unpopular.

Partner, Global Head of Family Business

KPMG in France


Related content

What constitutes a failure?

Madness is following a path riddled with failures, right?

The answer to that isn’t actually as cut and dry as you may think. By abandoning every failure, many businesses would never have finally brought us products that have indeed changed how we do the simplest little things. Sometimes an idea is so inconceivable to the general public, so different from the norm that they have come to accept, that it takes them a few tries to see the merit in something that they could end up happily using every day.

Take the humble Post-It Note

Used in offices everywhere, as well as well-placed reminders at home, Post-It Notes and their subsequent variants are so entrenched in our modern lifestyles that we hardly even give them a second thought.

But the truth is that when they were developed by 3M scientist, Spencer Silver, back in 1968 they were conceived out of failure. Silver had been trying to develop a super strong new glue, but instead ended up with a mixture that hardly did the job. What he had in fact developed was a substance that could stick to any surface, but then could also be safely pulled off again, without damaging the surface or leaving any residue.

Not quite what he was after, but rather than abandon his new creation, he shared it with his team. No instant success here either, as no-one could come up with a marketable use for the glue. So it was shelved for four years, until a colleague decided to use it on the back of his bookmark to mark his place in his church hymnal.

Quickly the substance started being used internally for the use we appreciate today – to make “sticky notes”.

A failure at market

Despite the love within the company for these sticky notes, its first venture into the public domain was an unmitigated failure. The general public saw no need for the notes and sales were dismal.

The marketing team and CEO of 3M wouldn’t let this stand though, and through funds from the CEO’s budget, staged a one-day strategy session. 3M employees, plus temps hired for the day, ventured into offices to show employees exactly what to use Post-It Notes for, and why they are so useful.

The campaign was a success, with most of the employees changing their minds about the little notes, saying that they would buy them.

Why didn’t 3M give up on a failure?

The Post-It Note saga carried on over more than a decade, but something made 3M keep on trying. That something was a culture of innovation over the bottom line in the company. No idea is tossed aside at 3M, with employees being encouraged to try new things, seek out different angles on old products and bring forth any new idea they have to the team.

In this thinking, scientists feel secure and confident to bring up out of the box ideas for new products, knowing that the feedback will never be negative, but rather constructive and collaborative. The company proudly boasts that this company culture has resulted in new product sales accounting for 32% of revenues, a figure set to reach 40% by 2016.

At the end of the day, whether your company can turn a failure into a resounding success, all comes down to what is valued most in the company. Ironically, being mainly profit-driven can easily result in those profits never meeting those unimaginable heights that we’re all ultimately in business to achieve.

Connect with us


Request for proposal



KPMG's new digital platform

KPMG's new digital platform