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Webinar: Making Projects Fail Early

There are many reasons why projects fail and this will be the subject of my next blog. Right now we'll talk about why you might want to make projects fail early and how you can design projects to for early failure. This seems crazy but there is metho

There are many reasons why projects fail and this will be the subject of my next blog. Right now we'll talk about why you might want to make projects fail early and how you can design projects to for early failure. This seems crazy but there is method in my madness.

R&D projects are different than most types of projects discussed in management books and journals. The uncertainties going into a project are much greater. These uncertainties may cause a project to fail despite it being well-conceived, organized and executed. If nature isn't cooperating with you, the most brilliant and motivated project team can't make it work.

Typical project costs increase greatly in the later stages of the project. These later stages often involve scaling chemical manufacture, putting drugs through clinical trials or testing customer reaction to a new service or product. If one discovers major flaws in the product, process or service early in the projects, one eliminates the need for continued spending. Lab managers can conduct a strategic retreat and spend the money on other projects. When insoluble problems are discovered late in the project, there is a strong tendency for lab and project managers to "throw good money after bad" to try to solve these problems after large sums already have been spent on the project.

Design projects so that if they are going to fail they fail early before large amounts of time and money have been spent. This means identifying the greatest technical challenges (risks) associated with the project and designing the project to overcome them as early as possible. It also means trying to identifying hidden problems as early as possible to try to solve them before large sums of money are spent on the project. For example, consider development of a new drug. If toxicity and drug side effects can be discovered fairly early in the project when it is still in its laboratory stages, the need for expensive clinical drug trials can be eliminated or reduced though better design of clinical trials.

To design projects to test critical concepts as early in the project requires careful project design. This begins with a thorough literature search of the relevant technology. For example, in developing a new drug, say one that lowers blood cholesterol, one should test its compatibility with other drugs the candidates are likely to be taking such as medications that lower blood pressure. One can perhaps discover if this is likely to be a problem by searching the relevant medicinal chemistry literature. It may be possible to conduct at least preliminary, relatively low cost laboratory studies to answer the question.

Tackling critical problems early may require taking your initial project design and literally starting in the middle. For example, suppose you are trying to develop a new catalyst that has a substantially improved lifetime compared to the current one. Some proof of concept – extended catalyst lifetime lab studies - may be scheduled early before optimizing catalyst ligand and other catalyst structural features. Later, when the extended lifetime of this type of catalyst has been demonstrated and chemical structural features optimized, a small number of catalyst lifetime studies can be performed.


John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.