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When to admit failure

Timothy Simcoe on why optimism might be the wrong doctrine for R&D

Keep moving forward or clean the slate and start fresh? That’s the eternal question facing researchers and inventors under pressure to develop new products. Thomas Edison famously persisted in his search for the ideal light bulb filament—and put an optimistic spin on the ordeal. “I have not failed,” he reportedly said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” But what’s the best path to a successful idea?

DON’T DO THAT “You might think that you have to be really optimistic to be involved in R&D, because you’re going to encounter lots of failure and you have to keep marching on,” says Timothy Simcoe, an associate professor of strategy and innovation. Not so, he says. “We find almost precisely the opposite to be true: that sort of optimism can be very costly.” Starting over might be more productive than sinking more time into an idea.

DO THIS The key part of Edison’s journey to a successful light bulb, according to Simcoe, who recently completed the paper “Learning When to Quit: An Empirical Model of Experimentation,” is not that he kept trying, but that he kept quitting. To better understand the relationship between success and failure in R&D, Simcoe and his coauthors studied open-source software development, analyzing successful projects and abandoned ideas. They found that by quitting sooner, more experienced developers invested less time in projects that didn’t work out. In other words, the sooner they give up on a bad idea, the quicker they can find a good one. “Don’t behave as though ideas are scarce,” Simcoe says. “Behave as though time is scarce.”