One of the most damaging phrases during any business meeting is, “We’ve tried that before.” Often, one failed attempt at a project, even years before, is enough to disqualify it forever. How silly is that? Projects fail for a variety of reasons — lack of planning, bad timing, bad product — so a project that might have failed in the past could still become an important part of your business today.
In most cases, perpetrators of the “We’ve tried that” gambit are merely trying to avoid further discussion of failures they find embarrassing. Avoiding re-evaluation of past ideas, like dismissing new and challenging ideas, is a way to insure both the status quo and their position in the company. Instead of fostering the all-important communication that companies need to succeed, such tactics are designed to quash conversation — a nicer way of saying, “Shut up and do it my way.”
For the sake of your company, your job and your career, you can’t let others stop the re-evaluation of old ideas. The seeds of new growth and productivity may be found there. You will have to make some extra effort, and do some investigating, but you may find that the time is right today for an idea that may have failed in the past. While it might not be popular, at least at the start, someone needs to champion the best of these older ideas, even it if might be uncomfortable for the older members of the organization. One success will be enough to show that there is gold to be spun from failed projects, no matter how embarrassing their initial failure.
Your most important task is to discover why a project may have failed in the past. Was the market not ready? Was the product flawed? Was it too expensive? Once you have a clear idea of these issues, see if any have been solved by the simple passage of time. In the best cases, you will find that component prices have dropped sharply or that new technology makes cost a minor consideration. Maybe people weren’t ready for your new service a year ago, but changes in society have created a new market. If time, and innovation by others, has solved these previous obstacles, you might be able to re-launch the project immediately with few changes. That is a significant return on investment for something that had been forgotten and buried.
In other cases, even where the project is fundamentally flawed, you may still be able to extract useful parts. Perhaps a particular device was a non-starter, but some internal technology can be developed into a project of its own. There is something good to be found in every idea. When podcasting first started, many wanted it to be as different from commercial radio as possible. It was my belief, though, that podcasting should take all the best from radio and discard those elements that were limiting its popularity today. Radio provided many good examples of show format, advertising and sponsorship methodologies and audio techniques. Podcasters adopted these elements. On the other hand, mass market orientations and lowest common denominator programming were left on the bone pile, where they belonged.
Every business should have some method of re-evaluating past ideas and separating the gold from the surrounding dross. I believe it is an important part of any structured innovation program. So many companies are seeking methods to generate more and better ideas to help their companies grow, but they often ignore the ideas that are sitting there in front of them. While companies can, and should, continue to develop entirely new ideas, developing additional ideas from past failures and false starts can add a tremendous boost to the total. The fact is, companies are always developing products and services that are far ahead of their time due to excessive cost or complexity. Your goal is to store, sift and recognize those ideas that are now viable.
Just because an idea may have failed in the past doesn’t make it an automatic candidate for rejection in the present. Many ideas can take years or even decades to find the right combination of market, technology and culture. Personally and professionally, you are well advised to look to old failures for new, profitable ideas. To dismiss these ideas out of hand is to discard ideas that could take your career to unimagined heights.