Learning From My Heroic Failures

It was Balzac, the author of La Comedie humaine, who said: ‘le milieu explique l’homme.’   My translation of this would be, ‘If you want to understand the man, you had better understand his environment first’…

In fact, it was approaching half-time in the decade that gave us Dirty Dancing and acid house, whose pop stars sang of Tainted Love and Relax, Don’t Do It; it was also the year in which a new soap opera was born.

No, not EastEnders, which welcomed us into Albert Square for the first time in February 1985, but that other long running soap, The Value Engineers, which was conceived in Covent Garden in October and was finally launched onto the world in a Fulmer conservatory in Buckinghamshire in May 1986.

However, springtime for TVE marked the swansong of another concept: new product development – because at a time when all sorts of new fashions were permeating business (“let’s do lunch,” power dressing, time management), it was almost inevitable that NPD managers would  rebrand themselves as innovation wizards, almost overnight.

And what an era for innovation this was!  Amongst my favourite contemporary bric-a-brac from this period (and still stored in my mother’s house) are: my ZX Spectrum (£125 for 16kb), my brother’s Atari console and stash of BT Phone cards, my dad’s shell suit for casual Sundays, his Filofax (unused) and a well-read leaflet for a Sinclair C5.

This was a decade of great change and category development – it witnessed the unstoppable rise of fast food, which ricocheted into frozen food, and witnessed the miracle of the microwave and the rise of tinned and packet ethnicity. It was also the decade of information technology as a fast moving consumer good.

TVE behaved like a classic SME, securing a competitive advantage by buying a trio Amstrad 1512s, fax machines and the first generation of car phones – I can still picture my first Nokia brick!

This was the decade of ‘loadsamoney,’ privatisations, Wall Street and The Bonfire of the Vanities, and on the back of the search for growth we developed an unshakeable thirst for trends, so much so that many of us succumbed  to and became suckers of the ‘Trendemic’ of futurology.

I remember the first time I heard of Faith Popcorn, the Malcolm Gladwell de nos jours, who gave us a whole smorgasbord of consumer psychology snack food upon which to graze. I remember my first response to the term ‘cocooning.’

The 1980s, in fact, like all decades, coined a whole new vocabulary – ‘chill out’ was a place and a command; ‘wicked’ and ‘sucks’ were the new critical terms; ‘space cadet,’ ‘air head,’ ‘toy boy’ and ‘bunny boilers’ were the new roles you couldn’t apply for but were given by your chums.

And in this new world of innovation, we all had to learn a new language – incremental product versus discontinuous breakthrough. The mysterious and highly secret CTT matrix was translated into TVE’s 3 Ts- Twinkles, Twists and Tweaks

We discovered new gurus like Robert Cooper and Wheelwright and Clark who brought some process discipline and rigour to the unbridled ideation passion and enthusiasm of our colleagues. We said hello to stage-gate processes, we held gate meetings, we reviewed our funnels and talked about good gate-keeper behaviour.

In a big world getting ever smaller, we learned how to steal with pride and then to sequentially recycle, to activate insight or just co-create.

But like the great new product managers we replaced, we began above all to welcome experimentation and to learn to live with failure:

As the late Stephen Pile once said, ‘Those who know success are usually familiar with failure,’ which is just as well, because although I may have some great successes of which to be proud, looking back on my career at TVE with the benefit of hindsight, I certainly have my share of stinkers in my black museum!

In theory, you can have a fundamentally good idea (draught beer at home) or a fundamentally bad idea (yogurt liqueurs) and in either case you can have a brilliant (or is that wicked) execution or a rubbish execution (which sucks) – but the paradox of the new product game, which keeps its players gripped, is that you can have a brilliant idea that is superbly executed and still fails!

(Insert 4 box Matrix form Slideshow here)



In my own experience I can think of three examples of super ideas that still failed:

–                 An in-home dry-cleaning system

–                 An in-pub sparkling wine system

–                 A luxury super premium ice cream that was 10x the price of the market leader

That’s why I am hooked on innovation – you can have as much system, science and left-brain stuff as you like but there are still all sort of random effects at play which make developing new brands perpetually stimulating and never predictable.

The scientific tendency has always found the more radical/market development cases the hardest to deal with.

Back in 1986 while I was working on the market development of mycoprotein which later was called  Quorn, I remember asking a pushy STM (simulated test market research method) salesman how many breakthrough concepts he had actually tested in his database. After trying to evade the question, he muttered something about self-heating hand warmers and we moved on.

And if I can pause the self-deprecation for a minute, I would  like to say that it’s not all failure on my CV – there are a number of new market developments, twinkles and twists of which I am inordinately proud: Quorn, canned Guinness powered by the widget, a host of cook in sauces, digital television to name but a few, but my heroic failures have had a disproportionate impact on my successes

So much for this brief review of my npd memories , but what does the future hold?

What’s in store for the world of innovation for the next 25 years?

If I can be indulged for a few moments and be allowed to be a grumpy old man with a tendency to rant (my title promised violence!), these are the key challenges that face new product folk in the future:

1. Make stuff not spin

I love positioning tricks with extrinsics  like the next man, but it’s time to make products…..

P&G taught me the importance of basic product superiority

2. Rebel against the tyranny of consumer insight

The 1980s saw the successful launch of lots of products without the cult of consumer insight. As we say at TVE, be fed not led by consumer insight

3. Practice healthy innovation and avoid ‘funnelitis’

Remember a stage gate process is a means not an end

4. Love your Partner

In the future we will not be able to do everything by ourselves – actively cultivate strategic alliances

5. Enjoy the thrill of exploring new frontiers and new territories

Terra Australis Incognita- like Captain Cook follow your hunch about the big unknown land down south

Especially the digitally enabled new world – what an exciting time for you all it’s going to be

And finally, and after 25 years launching brands for other people, and, in part, to atone for some of the terrible things I’ve done in the name of global brands (especially beers), I am pleased to end with a plug for my own gloriously local beer: Shotover Prospect, brewed by my very good friend Ed Murray

As I hope you’ll agree, this is one product that won’t make it into my heroic failures!


And the sex mentioned in the title? Typical positioning spin I’m afraid- best avoided!

Thank You

Given at the conference to celebrate the silver anniversary of TVE