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Friday, November 20, 2015

Destroying the evidence

" If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried."  - Stephen Wright

After I'd been working in the research department at Quaker Oats for about a year, I got moved to special projects.  This was partly because they tended to hire for turnover, so during the time they were nominally overstaffed these special projects could be done. I was working on updating the new product prediction model.

Much of this involved finding the data on new products that had been introduced over the past several years, and making that data consistent so it could be used for statistical analysis. I noticed that there was a lot more research in the department library about successful new products than about unsuccessful ones.  I thought I'd found out something about the value of marketing research.  But I hadn't ...

For two failed products I found a single memo written with some numbers.  The man who'd written that memo was now one of the executives in the department, so I asked him if he had more information in his files.  He looked straight and me and said "I never worked on those products".  I showed him his own memo.  He looked straight at me again, and said in a more threatening way, "I never worked on those products".  He also didn't know who had.  I got the point, apologized, and left his office.

Of course, he had worked on those products, but even years later didn't want to remember that or have anyone else remember that.  So the same sort of paperwork trail that you'd proudly put in the research library for successful new products he'd decided just to throw out for these unsuccessful ones.  Most of us don't like to talk about our failures much.

"Success has a hundred fathers. Failure is an orphan." - Italian proverb, tracing back at least to Tacitus in the first century A.D.