Research – Brilliant Failures

Resource Type
Research Project
Publish Date
Laura Buen Abad, Preeti Chandra, Candee Krautkramer, Joel Schall, Marcie Zaharee, Stewart Mehlman
Culture, Project Management
Associated Event
Research Project
Initiated:  Fall 2017
Completed:  Spring 2020

Value proposition

“[T]hose most able to learn from failed experiences will be those most likely to succeed in the future, as they take responsibility for an undesirable outcome, attempt to identify what went wrong, and test new approaches or alternative strategies for future performance.”
This project postulates that at a strategic level, R&D practitioners would benefit from better resources for identifying failing projects and for making the decision on whether or not to terminate or redirect a project.  Once the decision is taken, techniques for capturing and communicating the learnings from that project will add value to other projects.  
In order to develop the resources described above, this research effort will be divided into four key themes, building off of one another:
  1. Defining ‘failure’
    1. What is failure in the context of R&D (both transformational and incremental)?
    2. What does failure look like in different industries/organizations?
  2. Identifying methods for objectively determining whether a project is failing a priori to the occurrence.
    1. Are there metrics for managing failure?  If so, can a rubric be used to measure and define those metrics?
    2. Are there common attributes to most failed projects?
  3. Making the decision to either pivot, terminate, or pause.
    1. How to identify pivot points to redirect the project?
    2. What are the thresholds and how should they be prepared?
    3. Are there better ways of looking at all the options available as a project is failing?
  4. Creating a learning organization by capturing and disseminating learnings.
    1. How do you communicate about these projects in a way that drives learning and promotes risk-taking? 
    2. What methods help to overcome the stigma of failure?
    3. Are awards/rewards effective?
    4. What are the ‘watch-outs’ learned and how can they be prevented in the future?


  1. Literature scan
  2. Thought leader interviews
  3. Identify and engage SME
  4. Facilitated discussions with IRI members to define failure in this context.
  5. Benchmarking of the ways that R&D organizations are determining if a project is failing, including both commercial and technical failures
  6. Case studies of pivoting, terminating, or reshaping decisions
    1. Including methods for capturing and disseminating project learnings


  1. Definition of failure
  2. Basic literature background
  3. Rubric or set of metrics for determining if a project is failing and what next steps to take using a decision tree (pivot, terminate, pause)
  4. Maturity matrix
    1. Guidance on how to operationalize
  5. Best practices for capturing and disseminating project learnings


Stewart Mehlman (IRI Emeritus)
Marcie Zaharee (MITRE)
Core Team
Laura Buen Abad, Sonoco
Preeti Chandra, Linde
Candee Krautkramer, Kimberly-Clark
Joel Schall, Henkel