Tom's Inferno reflects many of the definitions of failure that the team had identified during a separate exercise. In the idea cloud buzzing around 'success' I saw:

Launch ~ work as a team ~ Red Stripe 2.0 ~ 100,000 users ~ confidence ~ GMC (Group Management Committee) happy ~ make money ~ gain respect ~ healthy ~ do it in six months ~ being hired permanently by Red Stripe ~ learning ~ making something cool

And around 'failure':

No product ~ fighting ~ getting fired ~ leaving the team ~ GMC don't like it ~ goes bust ~ egg on face ~ boring ~ incremental ~ old business model ~ shame

At the end of March Javier, the team coach, asked them each what success would look like.

'Success would look like a really, really, really great website which kicked ass and set me up with doing something at The Economist or fun elsewhere. A kickass website.'

Mike: 'getting the green light from The Economist to do whatever we want to do.'

'To have created something innovative, new, where peers and colleagues stood up and took notice... something that we'd get recognised for.'

Joanna: 'A thing, most likely a website, that impressed internally because whilst appearing to be something seemingly simple (we only have 6 months) it was clear it had significant future potential for The Economist Group, whilst paradoxically outsiders might see it as a fairly small development, unaware of its potential.'

' Something fun to implement where people say "wow", that gets recognition. Something that's useful to the target group and useful to The Economist Group, that guarantees Project Red Stripe is not just a one-off.'

'Something I'm a serious part of.'

As always, recognition, visibility and making an impression were important for them. And why not? Why come up with an idea that nobody rated? But important to notice that one person's success is getting somewhere, another's is being recognised for it and a third's is being involved along the way.

Clearly, by their own definitions, Project Red Stripe failed. But what if the definitions were wrong in the first place? As Scott Anthony says in a thoughtful piece:
The Economist actually got exactly what it asked for: an innovative idea
that was ready to launch quickly. Had it been clearer up front that a critical
success factor was the ability to generate some kind of economic return, it is
possible that the Red Stripe team would have developed a vastly different
And that's exactly right. In the weeks they spent developing first the idea known as Bavaria (relating to universal primary education) and then Lughenjo (a broader, philanthropic, not-for-profit) the team were deliberately turning away from commercial innovations. Let The Economist Group, they said, make its next reputation as a doer-of-good and the core business can only benefit. They had come up with a radical innovation in a complete departure from the company's publishing past. They had a product in their sights but moved away from it in large part because of the reaction from the Group Management Committee (GMC).

Nothing they came up with was boring or incremental. Clearly, for the team members individually, the six-month stint was an extraordinary learning opportunity, which they took every advantage of. For The Economist the lessons and opportunities potentially emerging from the project are huge (there's more on this in
the practical visionary). As Scott Anthony goes on to say:
Who knows? Perhaps The Economist will learn enough from its failures that
its next autonomous effort will have clearer directions and will follow a more
iterative path. Then Red Stripe will be hailed as a critical learning moment...

And, besides all that, if it is classified as a failure - and we do have a seeming appetite to classify things somehow - Professor Amabile, whom we meet in the last fart of the ferret, says that, 'if people do not perceive any "failure value" for projects that ultimately do not achieve commercial success, they'll become less and less likely to experiment, explore and connect with their work on a personal level. Their intrinsic motivation will evaporate.'


Almost everyone writing about creativity and innovation would agree on the importance of allowing, and attaching value to, failure. It's where the greatest learning takes place. But, if you have a one-off project like this and it fails it's almost by definition impossible to be pleased about that: personal learning may thrive on failure; innovation teams don't. So what is your position on failure honestly going to be?

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