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GE’s Immelt: learning from blunders

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Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, says his favorite failure was a product called Nuvel, a countertop material he describes as “the poor man’s Corian.” If you dropped a coin on it, he says, it would leave a mark that required sandpaper to remove.

Immelt takes the blame for the product’s failure, saying the need for speed, plus the human tendency to live in denial, overtook common sense and created a $20 million mistake.

Here’s how to avoid the same pit:

Since early projections are just hunches,
don’t worry too much about forecasts. “For every one of our failures, we had spreadsheets that looked awesome,” says Intuit founder Scott Cook.

Involve your customers as early as possible. They are the best reality checks.

Don’t try to prove yourself right. Everybody’s always looking for supporting evidence. Through testing, try as hard as you can to prove yourself wrong. You’ll hate it now but thank yourself later.

Share your own failure stories. When a leader discusses personal failures, employees feel (a little) freer to tell theirs.

When a project fails, hold a postmortem—and hold the blame.

What did Immelt do once he recognized his company’s blunder with Nuvel?

Three things:

  • He had to exceed targets in other product lines to close the gap in profits.
  • He made good to his customers.
  • He tried to absorb the lesson that you have to put enough thought and research up front so that you’re not in fix-it mode later.

— Adapted from “How Failure Breeds Success,” Jena McGregor, BusinessWeek.

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