Fail Fast, Learn Faster

Cartoon of man leaping across stones marked fail and success

By Victoria Scarborough, Ph.D., The ChemQuest Group

Innovation is a risky business. About 1 to 3% of new technology product ideas make it to the marketplace. Having a high tolerance for failure is not only necessary but also a major prerequisite for any innovation program.

Still, failure carries a negative implication in any fast-paced, success-driven business, and people are reluctant to admit failure on projects in which they have invested time and resources, especially where they may fear job repercussions for poor performance. But when your rocket keeps falling over on the launchpad, it is time to find another way to get to space. It is time to kill the project and move on.

Terminating a new technology project is difficult when people have strong feelings about the value the technology may bring to the company if successful. Seasoned formulators have a difficult time letting go of a proof-of-concept project when they believe in the technology but cannot “make” it work. In addition, upper management may have significant investments in the technology and a strong desire to beat the competition. The pressure on the innovation team to deliver results may affect their ability to stop working a project. While these complicating factors are problematic, there are some clear warning signs that help make it easier to terminate a project, including:

  • Purpose. Deciding to stop a project requires a good understanding of the current market dynamics. Any shifts that may have occurred during a technology evaluation (such as a pandemic) may require a pivot to dropping the evaluation to move on to more market-driven projects.
  • Cost. Technology evaluations can be costly especially when they involve the purchase of new equipment, large field studies or expensive raw materials. When evaluation failures occur repeatedly, the costs can be out of control. Knowing the limits of your budget provides guardrails for knowing when to stop a project.
  • Availability. Sample availability from small technology companies is an important factor when conducting studies that may fail repeatedly. If the startup company does not have the capacity to meet your needs, it is better to transfer the internal project to a university research setting where time is not as critical and sample use is smaller.
  • Regulatory. The regulatory environment for emerging materials is changing rapidly. If new regulations negatively affect the technology that is being evaluated, then terminate the project quickly. It is likely there are other technologies that will address the market need.
  • Throwing it over the wall. Lack of communication with the technology provider is the leading cause of project failure. Startup companies have no understanding of what larger companies need when they are left out of the evaluation process. Corporate innovation teams will not understand how the startup technology was created without becoming intimately familiar with its development process and inventors. Conducting lab studies on samples without provider input will prolong evaluations and most likely lead to failure because of a lack of understanding of the nuances of the technology. The tighter the collaboration, the better the outcome. If there is no collaboration, it may be better to move on to the next project on the list.

Terminating projects is the key to maintaining a robust new technology pipeline. When resources are constrained, it frees up money, people, and facilities to go on to the next set of technology evaluations. Conducting more frequent technology reviews with all key stakeholders can be used to score winners and losers, including a detailed analysis of why a technology is not meeting expectations. Failing fast but learning faster from each analysis will keep the pipeline moving forward, de-risk the process and make that 1-to-3% new product idea a commercialized reality.

CoatingsTech | Vol. 18, No. 9 | September 2021

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