Failing Forward

mad scientist

by Krissy Goelz (@krisgoelz)

Anyone familiar with Discovery Channels hit show “Mythbusters will know co-host Adam Savages catchphrase, “Failure is always an option. As he explains, “Its not just a joke, its actually the cornerstone of our approach to the scientific method. […] Any result is a result.

Science is used to the idea of “failure” not being a bad thing, but rather, simply a potential outcome of research. One of the first things you learn in science class is that an experiment that discovers the opposite of what you expected is not a failed experiment. As long as the experiment was conducted properly, the result – whether expected or unexpected – is the evidence of a successful completion.

However, most corporate executives do not see a failure with quite the same blase equanimity. They tend to look at it with a little more horror – and a lot more focus on what it has taken out of the annual budget. In the corporate world, failure tends to have a direct correlation with brakes being applied to a career trajectory. And when science is done – as it often is – within the bounds of a for-profit institution like a pharmaceutical company, those financial business realities tend to bleed over into the lofty ambitions of science. In some ways, it can be useful when scientists start thinking like businesspeople. But when it comes to experimentation, it can seriously limit their thinking and exploration. If you need to win all your bets, youre going to make very safe ones.

A recent article in Pharmalot noted that Phase II clinical-trial failure rates are rising, with only about 18 percent of Phase II trials meeting their endpoints. The article itself is proof that failure, in pharma R&D at least, is no longer an option. Drug trials exist to prove the worth of their compounds – and “worth is meant literally.

The mindset behind this way of thinking is obviously sensible and sound in many ways. However…

  1. Is it possible for the industry to find a way to bring back more of the scientific openness to failure – and with it, the possibility of an increased number of great new discoveries?
  2. A second, slightly more wishful question is, can we bring that scientific willingness to risk and experiment from R&D over to pharma marketing?

The fastest way to encourage innovation and risk is to take away the possibility of negative repercussions – to make failure okay. We need to create more opportunities – whether time-limited special events, geographic gatherings, online groups, or new ways of doing business altogether – that allow us all to fail forward.

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