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There Are No Bad Ideas: Just Ideas That Don’t Work

Friday, October 7th, 2011

If at first you don’t succeed, learn!

I have written at length about the value of ideas. Thus far, I have focused on successful ideas. But unsuccessful ideas are extremely important too; not least for the amount of damage they often cause. Damage not from the ideas themselves, but from how badly organizations often deal with unsuccessful ideas.


Probably the most famous unsuccessful idea in recent business history was implemented by Coca-Cola almost 20 years ago. Losing ground to Pepsi and seeing their new diet cola—with a different flavor than the traditional Coca-Cola—gaining in popularity, Coca-Cola decided to update the taste of their world-famous drink. Being a huge multinational, they put their best food scientists on it, experimented thoroughly, and conducted market research in a big way. By the rules of modern marketing, they did everything right.

But the idea failed miserably. Coke drinkers were more emotionally devoted to the old flavor than anyone had realized and complained bitterly. Sales of the new coke bombed.

Fortunately, Coca-Cola executives of the time were a bright bunch (and presumably still are). They promptly admitted their mistake and re-launched the original Coca-Cola alongside the new drink. Sales of the new drink fell sharply and sales of the original Coca-Cola soon started growing again. (A more complete, yet still concise description of the new Coke launch can be read here.)

In spite of their failed idea, Coca-Cola did two things right, thus minimizing their losses. Firstly, they realized that their idea did not work and dumped the bit that failed which, it is important to note, was the dropping of the traditional Coca-Cola, not introducing a new drink. So, they re-launched the original drink.


When an idea looks good and we implement it, it is easy to become overly attached to the idea. When it does not work, and analysis shows that it is unlikely to do so, it is hard to drop the idea. It is harder still when you have invested money in the idea. There is the temptation to hold out in order to recoup your investment. Still, when an idea is not working and evidence shows that it will not start working, it is best to drop the idea and count your losses. Hanging on will only cost more. Imagine the losses to Coca-Cola had they stubbornly refused to re-launch the original Coke and had only sold the new Coke.

The second thing Coca- Cola did right was to learn from their mistake. They learned how amazingly devoted their customers were to the original Coke. They learned that the flavor of the drink was so sacred, in most people’s minds, that they would not change to an alternative—even if the alternative tasted better. Doubtless Coca-Cola learned a lot more, which they presumably have been implementing in their marketing strategy since.

Indeed, Coca Cola came through their failed idea fiasco so impressively that there have been rumors that it was all a grand marketing campaign. I doubt that is true. But, over the long run, I would not be surprised if Coca-Cola gained more from their unsuccessful idea than they lost. But this comes from handling a failed idea very well indeed.


It is a cliché to say that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. But it is entirely true. When an idea fails, it is important to learn why. Sometimes it is obvious, as was the case with Coca Cola. Other times it is not so clear. Often, we are too close to an idea to see why it will not work. In that case, it is useful to bring in an outsider to look at the idea and determine what went wrong. With small personal ideas, a spouse, friend. or relative can be useful. For big corporate or organizational ideas, a consultant may be necessary.

In an organization, it is important not to punish the person responsible for the unsuccessful idea. It is human nature to want to lay the blame for mistakes on someone else. And it all too often happens that the person who proposes an idea that fails is reprimanded. Sadly, such a reprimand is all too likely to make her reluctant to propose new ideas to the organization. As a result, the organization looses out on future ideas that this creative thinker would otherwise have proposed.

Moreover, in any organization, acceptance of an idea usually requires a number of people (no one person at Coca Cola simply said, “let’s launch a new version of Coke,” and launched it all by herself). Implementation requires even more people. Thus the originator of a failed idea can hardly be held exclusively to blame.

It is better to involve the originator in the evaluation of why the idea failed. Compliment her for the idea and encourage her to continue to contribute ideas. Chances are, another idea –from the idea originator—in the near future will more than make up for losses from the failed idea.

And the result of all this learning from mistakes? Improve innovation results!

Cover and top image by Khalid Albaih via Flickr

This is a cross-post from Jeffrey Baumgartner.

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of The Way of the Innovation Master and Report 103, creator of Jenni innovation process mgmt software, founder of & father of two great sons. Follow him on Twitter at @creativeJeffrey.

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If at first you don’t succeed, learn!

I have written at length about the value of ideas. Thus far, I have focused on successful ideas. But unsuccessful ideas are extremely important too; not least for the amount of damage they often cause. Damage n…