Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Failures #2: Leaping the Right Distance


In the last blog, we looked at an article in USA Today article entitled “The 18 worst product flops of all time.” These flops included:

1. Edsel by Ford Motor Co.
2. Touch of Yogurt Shampoo by Bristol-Myers Squibb
3. Apple Lisa by Apple
4. New Coke by Coca-Cola
5. Premier smokeless cigarettes by RJ Reynolds
6. Maxwell House Brewed Coffee by Philip Morris Companies
7. Harley Davidson perfume by Harley Davidson Motor Co.
8. Coors Rocky Mountain Sparkling Water by Adolph Coors Co.
9. Crystal Pepsi by Pepsico
10. The Newton MessagePad by Apple
11. Persil Power by Unilever
12. Arch Deluxe by McDonald’s
13. Breakfast Mates by the Kellogg Co.
14. WOW! Chips by Pepsico
15. Hot Wheels and Barbie computers by Mattel
16. EZ Squirt (colored) Ketchup by Heinz
17. TouchPad by HP
18. Google Glass by Google

We looked at three lessons to be learned from these flops. In this blog, we will look at another lesson to learn: The need to leap the right distance.


Innovation is a lot like taking a leap into the future. But, as the USA Today article shows, not all leaps are successful. Think of it as being like leaping over a deep canyon. If you can leap from land to land, you succeed. But if you miss, you fall down into the canyon and fail.

Here’s the problem. The canyon of innovation is too wide to cross in one leap. Therefore, to successfully get across the canyon, you need to leap onto a small mesa in the middle of the canyon. Miss on either side of the mesa (too short or too long) and you fail. This is illustrated in the picture below. As we will see, many of the 18 flops failed in part by not leaping the proper distance.

1) Leap Too Short
The first reason for an innovation flop is to leap too short. This happens when your innovation improvements are incrementally too small to matter. Sure, it might be a little nicer or newer or better, but not enough to justify switching, particularly if you are charging an innovation premium price.

The Edsel (flop #1) was a nice car, but the innovations were minor compared to the hype, and the innovations were not enough to justify the premium price. The leap was too short.

Kellogg’s Breakfast Mates (#13) combined cereal, milk and a spoon into one “convenient” package. However, a test showed that the Breakfast Mate was only about a second faster to prepare than regular boxes of cereal with a normal carton of milk. In addition, convenience to the customer meant eating on the go, and you could not prepare and eat Breakfast Mate on the go. Finally, it cost a lot more per serving than the old way. In other words, Breakfast Mates leaped too short. It was not enough of a convenience innovation. The right leap would have been to go to breakfast bars—more convenient to prepare (just unwrap), more convenient to eat (on the go), and not as big a premium.

McDonald’s Arch Deluxe (#12) was a better burger than the regular one, but not enough better to justify the price or to get people to switch from better-burger restaurants. They did not leap enough and build really better burgers worth going out of your way for, like Five Guys.

Apple’s Lisa Computer (#3) was a fine computer for its time, designed for the business market. The problem was that it was not superior enough to justify a $10,000 price. Also, it was not superior enough to grab the attention of software developers to make programs for it. The switching costs for businesses was high and the leap was not big enough to justify the switch.

2) Leap Too Far
Just as bad a mistake as leaping too short is to leap too far. If you innovate beyond the ability of consumers to embrace or beyond the capabilities of technology, then you will fail as well.

The Apple Newton (#10) personal hand-held computing device came out in 1993, before the pervasiveness of the internet. Thanks to that, and the limits of technology at the time, the Newton was not a very powerful device. It tried to be the equivalent of the smartphone before technology, applications, and consumers were ready. It was a leap too far, by almost 20 years.

Premier Smokeless Cigarettes (#5), back in 1988, was also a leap too far. The market had not yet banned traditional smoking as much as today and the technology wasn’t good enough to make Premier Smokeless Cigarettes a pleasurable smoking experience. It took about 25 years before the technology and consumer sentiments caught up to make electronic smoking successful.

One might argue that Google Glass (#18) was also a leap too far. Concerns over privacy and functionality made it perhaps ahead of its time.

3) Leap Too Late
The problem when timing an innovation leap is that if you wait until the innovation is fully accepted, you are no longer imitating…you are following. True innovation has some risks, because you are trying to establish a market that doesn’t quite yet exist. If you wait for the innovation to get a firmly established by someone else, it is typically that someone else who reaps the benefit. They become the brand know for the innovation and get the first mover advantage.

This was the main problem for Hewlett Packard’s Touch Pad (#17). HP waited until Apple made tablets their own with the iPad. HP’s Touch Pad was not meaningfully enough better hardware to unseat Apple. In addition, Apple owned the apps, content business and digital store, where everything was designed to work on the iPad.

Hence, HP failed due to waiting to late.


Innovation is a leap into the future. If you make your leap too short, you will not create enough differentiation for success. If you make your leap too long, you will get ahead of the customer and technology, which are not ready for success. If you make your leap too late, you become a lesser also-ran rather than a leader. Therefore, when on the path of innovation, plan you leap carefully (length and timing).


Jumping is not the same as leaping, because you end up in the same place as you started when you jump. So, just because you are furiously doing something doesn’t mean you are leaping to innovation. You may only be jumping in place.

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