Accelerating Innovation through Sharing Failure

Howard Cohen, KM Institute Adjunct Instructor, shares his thoughts on the role of sharing failure in accelerating innovation. 

Howie blogs regularly here:  cohenovate.com

Normally you hear of stories on how Thomas Edison, Abe Lincoln and others failed x amount of times and how important persistence is. Those are great stories, but I consider some of them, at least the Edison story more like a folk tale.    Today I am writing you about something real and surprising.

This past week there was great news about stem cells that comes from the discoveries from Dr. Charles Vacanti, (http://physiciandirectory.brighamandwomens.org/Details/1674) and his colleagues.   The short of it is that they can take mature cells from mice and turn them into embryonic-like stem cells, which can be coaxed into becoming any other kind of cell possible. One method effectively boils down to this: Put the cells in an acidic environment.  (http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/29/health/stem-cell-discovery/).

This is a great discovery with many implications but the part that I found very interesting is that Dr. Vacanti isn’t a stem cell expert.   In fact, he is an expert in Anesthesia and Pain Management!  So the next question is why did this group make this discovery as opposed to say a “stem cell expert?"

Here it comes . . .

My answer here is that anyone doing any work in medicine and other science has an opportunity to solve problems across practice and domain areas because even though they are looking to solve one type of problem, they MAY not have a lot of information from outside of their domain or practice areas.  That means if they are open minded and observant they can essentially discover new things or rediscover what others haven’t shared.

This is important because there is a problem with research that goes unchecked and it also deals with knowledge management and knowledge continuity.    RESEARCHERS DON’T SHARE.

Here is the analogy:  If I am looking for gold and I don’t find it, I cover the hole or seal the mine and walk away.   Someone comes behind me and thinks the same thing I did and digs in the same spot. They find nothing and so on and so on.

This is what researchers do.  They have to do this because they believe that the information is their capital and sharing it would give away the credit that they need to have a career and get published.   The problem is that they don’t share their failures, they only share their success.  This failure to share failure causes others to make the same mistakes over and again;  wasting precious time and resources and holding back progress.

Publishing Failures

Researchers should publish their failures and allow access to the data that they accumulate so that others can data mine and make discoveries.  If they want or need credit, they can get it, but the bottom line is that withholding information on failed attempts or failed methods is actually more harmful than helpful.  In fact, sharing this kind of information could lead to short cuts in solving problems in medicine and beyond.   This is something to consider as we move into a new age of analytics!