Host a Failure Party

In New York City’s glittering social scene, I’ve never heard of a failure party. Apparently, you have to be on the A-list in Indianapolis to be invited to one.

In 2004, The Wall Street Journal published an article on Eli Lilly’s failure parties. These parties were started in the early 1990s by W. Leigh Thompson, who used them “to commemorate excellent scientific work, done efficiently, that nevertheless resulted in failure.” According to the WSJ,

Lilly has long had a culture that looks at failure as an inevitable part of discovery and encourages scientists to take risks. If a new drug doesn’t work out for its intended use, Lilly scientists are taught to look for new uses for a drug.

As part of this effort, Lilly developed “a formalized and thoughtful process in which it reviewed failures more honestly, more deeply and started the process sooner than anyone else.”  This is a very sensible response to what is reported to be the 90% failure rate for most experimental drugs.

By taking a creative second look at what was originally considered a failure, companies have salvaged their investments and been able to bring profitable innovations to market:

  • Viagra was originally developed to treat angina (severe chest pain).
  • Evista, now a $1 billion- a-year drug for osteoporosis, was a failed contraceptive.
  • Strattera, a drug for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, was first conceived as an antidepressant.
  • Post-It Notes were intended to be an improvement on adhesive tape and ended up creating an entirely new product line.
  • Scotchgard was created for airplane fuel lines, but was re-purposed as a stain repellent.

Have you gone back to see where a well-conceived project went off the rails?  Can it be re-imagined for another useful purpose?  Innovation isn’t just about that initial brilliant idea.  Sometimes, it’s about a brilliant comeback plan.

[Hat tip to Matthew Cornell for forwarding an article on learning that mentioned Failure Parties.]

[Photo Credit:  frippy]

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