What’s in your “flavor graveyard”? On a recent trip to the Ben & Jerry’s factory near Burlington, VT, I learned that there is an area of the campus set aside to commemorate discontinued ice cream flavors.

One such example, from early in the company’s history, is “Economic Crunch” from 1987. It was described as “vanilla with chocolate covered almond, pecans and walnuts,” which sounds pretty good to me. Here is its gravestone:

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Gravestone for "Economic Crunch," a discontinued Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor from 1987

There are about three-dozen such monuments to unsuccessful formulas from over the years. Ben & Jerry’s has found a charming way to celebrate these lessons from its past. What can other companies learn from this?

1. Commemorate failures publicly

This will allow everyone in the company (both new employees and old) to know what has been tried and what did not work. In a fast growing organization this is especially important, since much of your workforce was not around when those decisions were made. Doing this in a public fashion means that people learn from the past in a sanctioned way, rather than through rumors (or not at all).

This topic also comes up in my review of Adam Grant’s Originals.

2. Draw insights, but be careful about specific lessons

Each gravestone to a specific failed flavor described the ingredients and included a short little poem, some of which tried to explain why that recipe did not work out. “Fresh Georgia Peach,” was a vanilla ice cream that contained

Fresh-picked peaches trucked from Georgia Tasted great but couldn’t last ‘Cuz Georgia’s quite a-ways away & trucks don’t go that fast.

At no point, however, had anyone attempted to draw broader lessons for the unsuccessful experiments, although one or two such themes were apparent. (I noticed that many of them contained Brazil nut butter, which suggests that recipe creators at the factory might want to forego that ingredient in their future iterations.)

The specificity of the lesson that can be drawn from a failure is inversely proportional to its complexity. For a technical outage like a website being down for a few minutes or hours, there are probably several specific take-aways. The failure of a whole product, like Google Glass, is much more complex and defies simple explanations. Publicizing your failures can be left at the “what,” and need not go further than is reasonably extrapolated into the “why.”

For more on this topic, see John Allspaw’s excellent post on blameless post-mortems.

3. Communicate an attitude of acceptance

One of the key things that the flavor graveyard taught me is what didn’t happen each time a recipe was found to not work out: no one got fired. Experimentation and failure means that your team is ambitious, willing to learn from new experiences, and testing the robustness of your systems. When everyone has the best of intentions and a project still doesn’t work out, it is an opportunity to show that team that you appreciate their efforts and they are still welcome to try risky efforts in the future. If you are doing this on a personal level, you might consider writing a “failure résumé”.

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More of the Ben & Jerry's flavor graveyard

The full flavor graveyard can be found online here. There could be an interesting project in collecting the ingredients of both the failed flavors and Ben & Jerry’s current offerings to compare them in a visualization. And who knows, maybe one day some of these flavors will even come back from the dead.