The buzz was enormous, starting at the Las Vegas consumer electronics show in January and managing to stay voluble through several more major shows. It would be a revolution, everyone said. What the device promised—hand-held, wireless, robust—had never been imagined outside of science fiction.

Sixteen months after the intended launch date, Apple’s Newton Message Pad finally reached consumers. And flopped.

Slow Motion Fall

As tech fails go, the Newton is legendary. In an industry where the motto is “fail fast,” Apple couldn’t even get failure right; Newton failed at an agonizingly slow pace. By the time it launched, the team included engineers who had been in high school when the project started, according to Gizmodo’s history of the Newton. Almost five years after launch, the last model was discontinued.

But, Apple survived and, almost a decade after mothballing the Newton, the revolution succeeded in the iPhone and eventually the iPad.

So the question I’m mulling is whether Newton was really a tech fail, or whether it was a tech fool—it looked like a failure, smelled like failure. The egg was all over Apple’s face. But now we live in a world saturated with i-things. Were we fooled? Or should we reconsider failure?

Failure Hurts

Creativity doesn’t come from certainty. Every innovation is a risk. And risk wouldn’t be risky without failure. Real, awful moments of failure. I’ve lived through both the somewhat expected failures—“Hey, let’s take a chance and see what happens”—as well as the sucker-punch failures—everything’s chugging along OK when wham! And you fall on your face.

From Fail to Fool

After any fall, the only way up is step by well-worn step:

  1. Pick yourself up.

“Up” is the operative word. Look around, find what’s still positive, and align yourself with that. This is an internal and self-protective process, whether you’re an individual or an organization.

  1. Dust yourself off.

Separate yourself from the debris and seek perspective. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Figure out what happened, and try to get a read on what’s possible now. Were your goals right? Your strategy and tactics? Did you misjudge your moment? Your audience? Were you too bold? Too moderate? An outside perspective from a friend or consultant can speed this process.

  1. Start all over again.

When you’re ready (or when you must), start again. Completely, with as clean a slate as you can manage. Of course you’ll put the lessons to work in your next attempt. This is the essence of creative resilience: trying again, with a whole heart, with hope.

A Better Future through Failure

More important than the song and dance are the lessons you can learn from having played the fool. Court jesters or fools were reputed (at least by Shakespeare and some modern scholars) to be have the license to tell monarchs the truth, to be honest in a way no courtier ever dared.  What is your foolish fall telling you?

Looking at Apple’s handling of the Newton and subsequent gadgets, I have to think they realized that the failure wasn’t in their vision of the future (ubiquitous, powerful, handheld devices), but in the match between execution and audience.

Whether you need new programs, better marketing materials, or a deeper understanding of your audience, hold on to your vision of the world, and try again.


*Image courtesy of Eli Duke


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