2000 failed prototypes? Quit and move on.

2000 failed prototypes? Quit and move on.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

tagged: dyson, ideas, innovation, bobsutton, invention, inventions, quotes, thomasedison

What's the opportunity cost of sticking it out? It sounds like a good idea, but what might you have done with your time instead?

Photo Credit: Marvin Kuo

I love the James Dyson story (of Dyson vacuum cleaner fame). He didn't fail 5127 times to make his vacuum cleaner, he found 5127 ways to not make a better vacuum cleaner1.

Bob Sutton talks about this story and points out that often people want to hang it up before they make something work:

"It is an interesting case because it shows how difficult it is to make rational decisions in the innovation process.  Certainly, say 4000 prototypes and 4 years into the adventure, any reasonable person would have assumed that this was a failure, an extreme case of escalating commitment to a failed course of action."

And, while I love the story of someone who didn't give up and eventually succeeded, I think giving up after 4000 prototypes would have been a good action.

In fact, maybe he should have given up after 2000 prototypes. About the only bad place to stop is 5127 (since 5128 was the magic number in this case).

And this is Sutton's point: you don't know the cost of the innovation that you are undertaking. Just as Dyson didn't know that 5128 was the number.

It's easy, with the successful product complete and money in the bank, to look back and think Dyson made the right choice. But I wonder if quitting faster isn't another right choice.

What would Dyson have invented had he thrown in the towel on vacuum cleaners after 2000 attempts? What's the opportunity cost of the Dyson vacuum cleaner? None of these had been invented when he invented his first vacuum cleaner:

This is an exercise in thought, not a comment on what Dyson might have done instead (since his invention biography shows a tendency towards mechanical improvements and finding better, not new, ways to do things). But what might you invent if you give up after 2000 attempts instead of finding a better vacuum cleaner?


  1. I'm mashing-up the quote attributed to Thomas Edison: "I haven't failed, I've found 10,000 ways that don't work." Concerning inventing his version of the lightbulb (before succeeding).
    Other fun innovation / invention quotes:
    • "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."
      -Thomas A. Edison
    • "No fine work can be done without concentration and self-sacrifice and toil and doubt."
      -Max Beerbohm
    • "The core skill of innovators is error recovery not failure avoidance."
      -Randy Nelson, HR @ Pixar
  2. Bob Sutton Blog Post: http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/02/5127-failed-prototypes-james-dyson-and-his-vacuum-cleaner.html

Wednesday, February 18, 2009, 12:00 AM

tagged: dyson, ideas, innovation, bobsutton, invention, inventions, quotes, thomasedison