Should We Celebrate Failure Worth A Billion?

As every popular topic, innovation is a powerful magnet for clichés. Some of them obliterate more than illuminate. For example, I’m not sure that mixing innovation with DNA is a good idea. Though I kind of understand what Clayton Christensen and his co-authors had in mind when writing about “the innovator’s DNA” (“…each individual…ha[s] a unique innovator’s DNA for generating breakthrough business ideas”), I involuntarily cringe when reading that “successful innovation programs have a DNA consisting of seven elements.” Ouch, these days even kindergarteners know that DNA consists of only four elements!

Another innovation cliché that really rubs me is “celebrating failure.” Sure, we all know that innovation requires a lot of experimentation, and experimentation results in failures more often that it ends up in success. Absolutely, we must accept failures, learn from them and try again and again, until we succeed. But why do we need celebrate failures?

In every language, in every culture, the word “failure” carries distinct negative connotation, and placing it in the same sentence with “innovation” makes no difference. By calling to celebrate innovation failures, we might be announcing our belonging to the Sacred Society of Innovators (i.e. those with a unique innovator’s DNA), but do very little to advance innovation in places, still depressingly numerous, where the fear of failure keeps nipping innovation in the bud.

Besides, some innovation failures are so expensive that they give more reasons to mourn rather than to celebrate. Take, for instance, drug development. Even empowered with recent scientific breakthroughs, modern drug development still remains highly unpredictable business. The ultimate proof that a candidate drug does have clinical benefits (meaning that it may be approved by the FDA for therapeutic treatment) comes as late as in the Phase III clinical trial. It was calculated that it costs about $1.3 billion to develop a new drug and that 90% of these expenses represent the cost of Phase III clinical trials. Do we have any reason to celebrate a failure worth a billion dollars, given the fact that the failure rate of Phase III clinical trials reaches the mind-boggling 30-40% (and even higher in some therapeutic areas, such as cancer)?

We shouldn’t treat innovation as it’s any different from other activities. We live in a success-driven society. We should strive for success, and success only, be it innovation project, manufacturing process or safety of our borders. We should work very hard on decreasing the rate of failures in any of these endeavors–and, sure, it’s time to address the question of why drug development has become so inefficient and expensive. And we should reserve celebration for those occasions, however rare, when we succeed.

I’m even ready to consider this attitude an element of our innovator’s DNA.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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11 Responses to Should We Celebrate Failure Worth A Billion?

  1. Eugene, As a chemical company owner, I am forever disappointed in our industry’s predisposition to reward mediocrity which begins in K-12 and screams into full blather in the post graduate farce degrees I see coming in the door today. When will the BS end?

  2. Nathan says:

    I don’t think that the 1.3 Billion dollars you are referring to even can be said to be an investment in innovation. Anything remotely innovative was over years before a drug candidate gets to a stage 3 clinical trial, and likely not done by the marketing giant posing as a pharmaceutical company that runs the trial. With a few exceptions, most of the major pharmaceutical companies have divested themselves of anything innovative, slashing R&D in favor of marketing. Now most innovation comes from startups, and when they get something promising, they get bought out.

    • Nathan, thanks much for your comment. I’m not sure I agree with you. What you call innovation is in fact a scientific discovery, an invention. In order for an invention to become innovation, it must be implemented so that it can to bring VALUE to consumers (patients). And bringing this value through regulatory and marketing process is what costs $1.3 billion. I agree that the origin of innovation in the biomedical field is start-ups, however the origin of DRUGS is large companies. And patients consume drugs, not innovation.

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