Innovation Failure Lessons from Virgin, Pfizer, Rock n Roll

by Peter Cook

The Big IF…Innovation Failure

Failure is an emotive word whereas innovation is one that slides into social intercourse more easily. Yet any serious innovator knows that failure is often a precursor to the birth of any new product / service or process. Edison reputedly had 10 000 tries to invent the lightbulb. Sir James Dyson had 5127 prototypes for his dual cyclone vacuum cleaner. Sir Richard Branson’s failures are legendary, including Virgin Brides, Virgin condoms, and Virgin Coke. What separates Branson from most other leaders is his willingness to talk about his mistakes and learn from them.

I was called up by Sir Richard Branson’s first hire at Virgin Atlantic and recommended to contact a company called F*** Up Nights. My Virgin colleague David Tait had spoken at one of their events in NYC about some of Virgin’s more glorious failures and he thought I may have a story to share over the pond. Failure can be a much more powerful learning tool in business than success if we are willing to learn from it.

My greatest failure was when I sponsored an audacious record-breaking project to take 300 rock thrillseekers round the world, calling at the most prestigious music venues in the world. We were to make a “rockumentary film” to compare with cult classics like “This is Spinal Tap”, “The Blues Brothers” and “Wayne’s World”. I loaned my friend “cult punk rocker and two hit wonder” John Otway the equivalent of £55 000 from my life savings to pay the deposit for the Airbus to Air Tahiti. The plane never took off literally or metaphorically, due to lack of cashflow … John “forgot” to tell me that he had not lined up the other investors when I put my money in (sad face)

The story of this bizarre adventure is told in greater detail in “The Music of Business” and this video explains the tour concept and the quintessentially English eccentric that is John Otway:

The big lessons from this F*** Up are:

1. Meticulous execution is far more important than just having a bright idea – sweat the small stuff. In the case of the World Tour, our “recipe” was to take a fading rock star, add a great idea, execute the idea well and rejuvenate the star’s fortunes etc.

After a few months checking around the state of the project, it became clear that the tour team was more keen on dreaming rather than implementation.

This is a deadly condition in most entrepreneurial projects, although it did have a hilarious set of consequences in the Monty Python style of project management, in this case, one of which is captured below:


2. John did not wish to listen to dissenting voices, having put his heart and soul into the project over several years. This is not a problem that is confined to the art world. For example, Pfizer’s unwillingness to encourage dissent over the failure of their inhalable insulin product Exubera cost them an uncool €2.8 billion.

3. The failure of the tour was a case of too much divergent thinking and too little convergence.

4. Dysfunctional teams produce dysfunctional results – I was brought in at a late stage (too late) and found significant problems with some of the chemistry and competence of the team, but by then I was committed to continue in order to do the best for my friend… (sad face).

5. When working with friends, therefore, even greater levels of due diligence are required.  Simply stated “love is blind.”

Join us in London for the F*** Up Night or contact us to find out more about customised versions of the showcase around the world.


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peter-cook-_ux250_Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock, providing Keynotes, Organisational Development and Coaching. He is the author of seven books on business leadership. His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for AIDS and the development of Human Insulin. Peter is Music and Business editor at Innovation Excellence. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock.

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