Business history can be highly misleading. Why? It’s written by the winners. Historians spend careers studying the making of the atomic bomb, but not the making of the atomic-powered plane (a spectacular Air Force failure). Research managers analyze DuPont’s development of nylon, not Coca-Cola’s creation of New Coke (a dud).
We need to pay more attention to the losers, because they can help us understand why innovators fail and when engineers should fold a project. I was reminded of this recently when Boeing, the world’s leading aircraft maker, announced the cancellation of a planned supersonic aircraft that promised to carry 300 passengers from Los Angeles to Tokyo in four hours and 20 minutes.
The experimental plane faced technical hurdles and required perhaps another 20 years of incubation. It wasn’t likely to meet future noise and emission standards either. But what really worried Boeing’s managers were surveys that found that neither passengers nor airlines would pay much of a premium for the plane. Boeing feared it would end up with a pathbreaking plane no one wanted.
Boeing folded at the right time. The company’s action revealed an appreciation for one of the great laws of innovation, the Law of the Rathole. It is a simple law: Know when to quit.
The rathole law isn’t popular.We live in a time when consultants routinely tell managers they aren’t “change-oriented” enough or that they’re afraid to make “quantum leaps” in processes and products.What the conventional wisdom misses is that many companies and lone inventors face the reverse problem: They are bold to the point of self-destruction.
Knowing when to walk away from a risky project, then, is as important as knowing when to stay the course. Here are five rules of thumb for deciding when to walk:
¦ Don’t Marry a Technology: Innovators fall in love with technologies at their peril. Often companies squander huge sums of money in order to satisfy the technical intuition of a senior manager. Sometimes older technology is better, if only because social, political and economic factors shape success and reinforce the position of existing techniques. That people the world over dislike the sonic boom effectively doomed the Concorde.
¦ Monitor Your Developers: At too many companies, research and development is kept in a black box. Managers know the box they need, but not the boxes inside the black box. To avoid a nasty surprise, managers must monitor a project from top to bottom. Bill Gates of Microsoft provides the model here. When he reviews the progress of a project, he meets with every layer of developer, which gives him a chance to sniff out differences of opinion and snags.