“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

From my previous post you understand why I am so grateful that the “dots” have led me to CCSRI and why research holds a special place in my heart. In this update I will give you an idea of what I have been working on since beginning my Pulse Assignment about six weeks ago. During that time I have been thinking a lot about failure. Let me explain….

It is generally understood that failure is a good thing…even considered a necessity for success. If we take the time to learn from our mistakes, and use what we have learned to grow, it is through failure that we develop the confidence and “grit” to succeed.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison*

A Pulse Assignment forces you out of your comfort zone. It is one of the main reasons I decided to apply to Pulse in the first place – a new experience, a new challenge. However, it also comes with anxiety about the unknown, a fear of making mistakes, of leaving an organization where I had been for the past 10 years and starting from scratch, building relationships, learning and integrating into a new way of working. I can assume that these feelings are amplified for those who were placed overseas away from home! As I prepared for my assignment I reminded myself that the only way to grow is to be challenged and that through these challenges, mistakes and even failures, there is the opportunity to develop. I won’t bore you with all the mistakes I have made so far 🙂     .…. For now, an overview of my current role.

My first project was to review and evaluate 61 completed Innovation Grants funded by CCSRI starting in 2012….which has involved even more thinking about failure.

Some quick background:

In 2012, CCSRI redesigned their research grant programs to include a funding competition designed specifically for high-risk, innovative ideas. The goal of this competition is “to support innovative, creative problem-solving in cancer research”,  to “accelerate the introduction of innovation into the entire cancer research system and contribute to the scientific pipeline”.

“The Innovation Grants program allows researchers throughout Canada to put ideas down on paper that they would love for their colleagues and the people on the grant review panel to take a look at and say ‘wow, that’s outside the box!’ It’s a really fantastic program and it’s one that I’m honoured to be part of.”    Dr Craig Thomas, National Institutes of Health (from CCSRI 2014 Research Impact Report)

In the current economic environment, the appetite for funding this type of research is increasingly small. Further, the entire research portfolio, including the Innovation Grants, is funded through donations (all ~$37 million of it!) so it’s very important to evaluate the return on this investment. I have included some graphics throughout this post which demonstrate the extensive portfolio of research funded by CCSRI.

Picture exec summary impacts.The first of these Innovation Grants have completed and it is my role was to review their progress and assess whether they were successful or not. My boss asked two questions:

  1. Did they meet their original objectives?
  2. Did they generate usable findings (i.e. the original idea(s) worked)?

What is “Success”?

By definition, these are all high-risk (but potentially high-reward) projects and the expectation was that many would fail. However, there were very few that I would label as complete failures. The vast majority completed at least some of their objectives, and even if the original hypothesis seemed unsupported by the results, what the researchers learned allowed them to change directions and discover more about the mechanism of tumour development or metastases or drug resistance, for example. Many published their results and therefore added to the collective scientific knowledge and some even secured additional funding to continue investigating their new hypotheses. Would I consider these projects as failures since they didn’t achieve their original objectives as proposed back in 2012?

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” – Ken Robinson*

When I think back to the effective treatment my sister received, how many “failures” led to the incremental knowledge and understanding of triple-negative breast cancer that ultimately resulted in the effective therapies we have today? Which of these projects I am evaluating now will play a role in the next advancement that has the potential to save lives or improve the quality of life of those living with cancer? Perhaps these failures are necessary to reach success in the future. It is likely too early to assess the true impact of this research (there are those dots again…we can’t connect them forward…only backwards!).

ccsri-rir2014_en_graphic_pg18-invest-CancerType Picture1 - incidence and mortality rates.

The outcome of the assessment depends greatly on which measure is used to define “success”.  I presented the first results to my team last week and we had a great discussion about how to define success for these high-risk projects. We will also present the results to the Advisory Council on Research (ACOR) – CCSRI’s most senior scientific advisory group that recommends which projects should be funded.

ccsri-rir2014_en_graphic_pg23-ClinicalTrialsMy first six weeks have been productive and rewarding. Ultimately this work will contribute to CCSRI’s 2015 Research Impact Report which demonstrates to internal and external stakeholders (i.e. researchers, ACOR, donors) the value of their investment in this important research. If you are interested, the 2014 report is linked below.

Thanks for reading!


All graphics and quote from Dr. Craig Thomas are from the 2014 CCSRI Research Impact Report.

One comment

  1. Wise words of wisdom Robyn. I went to an AMCHAM meeting yesterday where the very concept of failure was addressed as a key to authentic leadership. You are doing great work:)

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