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Distinguish early between good and bad – Why research and innovation are like a game of poker

23 May, 2017

Anchor Management

An overly positive attitude, and an unnecessarily strong belief in the quality of one’s own ideas can have devastating consequences. This is particularly true for businesses where the main purpose is to generate ideas and then convert them into commercially viable products. By falling in love with one’s own ideas, there is a risk that the resources in the organization are depleted by allocating scarce resources to futile projects. Instead, non-viable or doubtful ideas should be dismissed as soon as possible, so that focus can be put on new ideas with a greater likelihood of success.

Research as well as innovation related businesses are characterized by the focus on generating ideas, which eventually will go through a series of tests and trials to determine whether the ideas in fact do generate the benefits once believed. These types of businesses have certain things in common with the game of poker. In research and innovation, the ultimate objective is that the idea will work and prove to be competitive. That is how the battles are won, and how investments yield returns. That the objective in poker is to have a winning hand and win the pot should not be news to anyone. Instead, it is interesting to think about what the worst possible outcome would be. After a moment of reflection, it is easy to realize that the worst possible outcome would be to play all the way to the bitter end, and pay for every new round, but in the end, see how someone else wins and walks away with the pot. Hence, if you are not winning, it is always preferable to lose as early as possible.

The same holds true in research and innovation. In pharmaceutical research, there is the established saying” Fail early, fail cheap.” To take the step from pre-clinical research into clinical trials is expensive, and every new phase in the clinical trial requires exponentially more resources. Despite this, it is not unusual that organizations establish incentive models, or in other ways reward that ideas are pushed further into the process, resulting in increased costs. A disproportionally large share of these ideas will eventually be dismissed, but they will have cost much more than necessary.

In the same way as in a game of poker, where you can stay in the game for another round, provided that the cost is not too high, oftentimes it is worth trying ideas which are inexpensive to try, to see if something good comes out of it. If the stakes are high, however, profound analysis and a large amount of reflection is required, to ensure that scarce resources are not allocated to the wrong things. It is easy to fall in love with an idea, and because of this hold on to it for emotional reasons. This risk increases with the amount time one has been working with the idea. This phenomenon, ”escalation of commitment”, is one of the most dangerous enemies to successful utilization of available resources. The more money you have put into the pot you are playing for, the greater the risk that you are not willing to fold, even if this would be the most rational decision to make.

By establishing a culture where the organization tries to kill new ideas as quickly as possible, instead of rewarding keeping ideas alive as long as possible, extensive resources can be conserved instead of unnecessarily consumed. These resources can instead be used to generate new, more viable ideas. In the cases where the ideas cannot be killed, despite repeated efforts, it is more likely that they are worth trying in a larger context. This is a much greater success than promoting an idea that has not been properly scrutinized

Think poker, and play to win, but instead of looking for confirming information that you may be sitting with a good hand, look actively for indications that your hand might in fact be a bad one. The winners are those who have the ability to bet on the appropriate hands and throw away those that are bad. The reason why people lose in poker is that they run out of money. The same holds true in research and innovation.