I went back reading Peter Drucker’s book on strategy and upon reread there is one thing that jumped at me: his statement that unexpected failures and successes are a key source of innovation. The reasoning behind this is quite straightforward. If you have put your best efforts in and you fail, there is a good chance you are being sent a message, which may not always be easy to decipher or swallow. Similarly, if you succeed in something you had not expected to succeed in, you are – so Drucker argues – quick to dismiss it instead of studying the circumstances that enabled the success.
When I read this, as always, my thoughts quickly shifted to how this message may apply to science and in particular my group. For example, how do we even define success in science. A high-impact paper? Hopefully not! A new cure developed? You wish. Perhaps, discoveries made and knowledge acquired? Then I realized that science is too different a world and this seemingly convincing statement by Drucker may not quite apply. Unless, of course, we take a more entrepreneurial view and focus for a moment on the shallow measures of success (papers accepted, grants funded, awards won). This might be the right level since in this case we now have a product, our science, and some quantifiable metrics of how well it is selling. Disgusted with this commercial viewpoint? I understand. But let’s think it through since such “commercial success” largely dictates how much research we care for we can actually do (at least most of us who are trapped in the career-long struggle to keep funding for our scientific vision going).
So here are some potential unexpected events of success to watch out for: