Google, Harry Potter and a mission to Mars – the world’s worst business decisions unveiled

Individual errors, avoidable errors and catastrophic errors of judgement – the business world is littered with mistakes which cost companies dearly.

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but there are some business decisions which will go down in infamy as the later consequences of these key mistakes are assessed.

Questionmark, a global leader in corporate assessment software – helping companies to work better through online assessment – has today released a report analysing some of these infamous errors.

Its report highlights seven ill-informed decisions triggered either by basic and avoidable errors, or simply a lack of awareness of trends and potential.

The report aims to highlight how good assessment tools can make a real and lasting difference to performance, improving retention, performance and customer satisfaction.

The seven ill-judged business decisions highlighted by Questionmark:

  • Math mayhem destroys Mars probe – in 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter hit the planet’s atmosphere and burst into flames. After 10 months in space and a budget of $125m, its failure resulted from one simple mistake. During the design phase, the probe’s speed had been calculated in metric units; when building the thrusters, however, the engineers programmed the speed in imperial measures.
  • Google fails to Excite – by the late 1990s, Google was making headway. But not everyone saw its potential. Early internet pioneer Excite was offered the chance to buy Google for just $750,000. The decision to decline is surely one they regret.
  • Blockbusters spurns Netflix – compared to the old-fashioned and poorly-run local video store, Blockbusters appeared to be a symbol of modernisation in the 1990s. Unfortunately for them, the world was already changing. In 2000 they turned down the chance to purchase a small ‘mail-order’ internet start-up called Netflix. In 2013, they closed their doors forever.
  • Motorola’s not-so-smart call – smartphones may be all but ubiquitous in 2020, but their emergence was a trend that, some argue, Motorola’s futurologists failed to spot. Despite being a leading player in the mobile market, Motorola chose to prioritise alternative innovations.
  • A Kodak moment to forget – the beloved camera brand was the first to innovate and understand digital technology. However, they chose not to use it. Despite making early advances, they lacked faith that it would ever deliver a quality that would satisfy consumers. The business left the technology in the lab and for others to pioneer.
  • Aon fails to insure against bribery – in 2009 the insurance company was fined £5.25m for failing to establish an effective anti-bribery system. At the time, this was the biggest ever fine levied by the FSA. Regulators were unimpressed that they had insufficient processes and had failed to test staff on their knowledge of counter-bribery procedures.
  • UK publishing industry fails divination – the rest of the decisions on this list reflect poor judgement by individual companies. However, in the 1990s almost the entire publishing industry famously failed to judge the marketability of the world’s most famous wizard. 12 publishers turned down JK Rowling’s submission for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before Bloomsbury finally took a chance on the risky project. Today the Harry Potter franchise is worth $25bn.

Lars Pedersen, CEO, Questionmark, says: “Most ill-fated workplace decisions avoid the history books. But there are parallels between the failures which hit the headlines and the more common errors that occur day-to-day.

“Decisions matter. So, the decision-making process should be informed and defensible.

“Our report explores how organisations that are serious about getting the best out of their people and process need to be serious about assessment. That way employers and employees can learn, adapt, and improve the decisions that matter the most.

“Read our report to understand these ill-fated decisions and the more common mistakes organisations make.”