Brush off your Failure folder and get innovative

By Rehan Khan. Published in The National on 8th March 2010. Being an innovator can be a risky endeavour. Sometimes you get it right, most times you get it wrong. I am often told “hey that’s a great idea”. Sadly none of my innovative urges have yet resulted in me being able to pack up and retire to the Welsh valleys to live the life of a paid novelist.

Yet I haven’t given up. For starters, I have created a folder on my hard drive called “Failure” and in it I’ve been serendipitously archiving all of the business failure stories I come across. There is a lot you can learn from failure, and I’m determined to discover the elusive pattern so that I can reverse it and create some success.

My Failure folder makes for interesting reading. Archive number 23, for instance, is dated 1999 and relates to the failure of my team and I to successfully deploy an intelligent virtual personal assistant with its own personality and on-screen avatar.

Our cyber secretary would replace a real one and undertake all of the usual tasks, but do them 100,000 times faster. In the “reason for failure” section of this particular entry it says “the executives we’re pitching don’t want a cyber secretary, they want to speak to a real secretary”. My private diary note adds: “investment mood’s sour; FEAR over upcoming doomsday scenario – the millennium bug.”

An earlier entry, archive number 22 from 1997, says that after navigating three rounds of a tender process for an infrastructure project and being successfully awarded the project by the tender board, my team and I still don’t get the contract. Reason for failure: “the chairman of the tender committee is reluctant to sign the contract, as he thinks there will be further pressure on costs next year and wants to keep a buffer.” My private diary note says: “investment mood’s sour; FEAR that Asian financial crisis may result in worldwide global meltdown.”

So to keep my Failure folder fresh, I set off with some zeal last week to the World Space Risk Forum 2010 (WSRF) in Dubai. After all, in space 99 per cent just isn’t good enough. I mean, you cannot exactly tell a space tourist: “well I’m sorry, but there is a 1 per cent chance that you’ll be stranded in orbit forever.” It’s either success or failure, because in space nobody can hear you file that compensation claim.

The insurance men, astronauts and smartly suited executives at WSRF had some out of this world failure stories to tell, which I diligently noted.

My first entry was Teledesic, a programme in the 1990s to launch a constellation of 840 active satellites in a low earth orbit, with the ability to provide uplinks of as much as 100 megabytes per second and downlinks of up to 720MB/s anywhere on the planet. It was marketed as an internet in the sky and would be the end of all fixed-line telecommunications operators. It even attracted funding from such luminaries as Craig McCaw, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. The project was officially closed in 2002. Reason for failure: “it was too ambitious, it was engineering led.” My private diary note reads: “investment mood’s sour; FEAR after dotcom crash.” You know, I think I’ve heard that one before.

I’m able to quickly add another entry to the archive: the NASA X-15 hypersonic orbital craft that was invented in 1959. It was launched from the wing of a B-52 bomber at 45,000 feet and could travel up to a height of 353,760 feet, reaching speeds of 7,272kph in the process. Reason for failure: body structure was too expensive and the Apollo programme became a priority after the former US president John Kennedy in 1961 committed that by the end of the decade the US would send a man to the moon and return him safely.

As I’m about to add my private diary note, which will probably have some comment on a fearful investment climate, I hear how the audacious Virgin Galactic project is using the X-15 concept. The rocket ship being used by Virgin Galactic is a suborbital craft that is made of a cheaper carbon composite. It will be powered by environmentally friendly biofuels. The ship will be carried aloft by the Virgin White Knight II aircraft and released at 50,000 feet, from where it would travel up to a suborbital 73,000 feet, inducing six minutes of weightlessness for those willing to pay US$200,000 (Dh734,600) for the privilege.

We can only wonder what NASA may have achieved in space tourism if more effort was put into projects like the X-15; perhaps the 1970s television series Space 1999 wouldn’t have been so far off the mark.

But getting back to Virgin Galactic, it is too early to say whether it will be a success or not. But the low carbon footprint of the vehicle claimed by Virgin, its powerful brand and the desire of many wealthy people to “boldly go …” or as my kids would put it “to infinity and beyond”, means there is a good chance of success.

The project also raises the exciting prospect of long-distance planetary transportation at a fraction of the time. Who wouldn’t be interested in travelling from the UAE to the US in two hours and maintaining a minimal carbon footprint?

I don’t expect to add Virgin Galactic to my Failure archive and neither do I expect to add Al Yah Satellite Communications (Yahsat), which is owned by Mubadala Development. Yahsat was also at WSRF and plan to launch satellite-based broadband and direct TV across the MENA region.

Despite the fear in the global investment mood, there are some innovative players investing in a counter-cyclical manner. Maybe true innovators look fear in the eye and just go ahead anyway. Perhaps this is what I’ve been missing all these years.

For starters I’m going to rename my “Failure” folder. I think I’ll call it “Phoenix”.