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Rationalizing Innovation Failure

How this error type preference works in real organizational life is that the story about the "one that got away" is relayed with such anxiety that every project with an uncertain outcome is identified as yet another example of one which you may "let get away." This vigilance to avoid any future embarrassment of the false negative results in a host of projects kept alive well beyond their time.

To rationalize this portfolio-inefficient mentality, a variety of other behaviors surface throughout the organization. Researchers wanting to avoid their pet projects being terminated identify closely with this tale, and research leaders adopt the mantra, "we can't afford to at least not try." Leaders outside the research departments are drafted to get on board by having it patiently explained to them that waste is a completely natural part of the research process and can't be avoided if one is to do great things. All parties can count on pithy snippets of history to aid and abet them in this effort. Even the venerable "wizard of Menlo Park," Thomas Edison, dismissed his critics by insisting that his failures were an integral part of his success by proudly declaring that shareholder investment had absolutely not been wasted because he now knew "10,000 ways not to make a light bulb."

None of this is to say that there is some magic formula by which research will just progress from one success to another, or that at some high standard of portfolio management, payment for failure magically disappears. We challenge these institutionalized versions of R&D simply because they have become so entrenched that they are all but invisible and leaders are too quick to accept the "nature of the beast" as part of institutional lore. Making these myths apparent is only a tiny first step to more effectively addressing them. And what should now be clear is that the addressing of these issues is the responsibility of all organizational leadership and not just those directly charged with executing the innovation projects upon which the future of the organization inevitably rests.

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