Corning’s Day of the Dead: Celebrating “Failures” at an Innovation Funeral

If you’re not killing projects regularly, you’re probably not innovating.  Learn why Corning holds an annual funeral for innovation projects, and how the event helps the company continually increase the effectiveness of its new-business development pipeline. 

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in an event that was strategic, fun, and a little unconventional. My colleague Marty Curran, Corning’s Innovation Officer, held his third annual celebration for the innovation projects that the company has chosen to “kill.”


Marty holds the event in conjunction with Halloween and Day of the Dead. This year, approximately 100 innovators gathered in the auditorium of our Sullivan Park Science &Technology Center to pay their respects to the recently departed.


I know that killing projects – especially innovation projects – sounds like a bad thing, so let me explain.


Marty leads our Emerging Innovations Group (EIG), which is dedicated to building entirely new businesses by applying an existing technology or capability to a new market or application, or finding applications for inventions that don’t fit into current businesses. At any given time, the EIG group might be exploring dozens of opportunities simultaneously, with a dozen making it to project status. Due to the speculative nature of the initiatives, there is a relatively high kill rate. The casualties are necessary to ensure the survival of the fittest.


Resilience and perspective are important qualities for the team, and making time for a little fun helps keep energy high and the creative juices flowing. Along with the gallows humor and the graveyard-themed refreshments, the event also has significant strategic value.  Project leaders conduct postmortems to help teams apply the lessons going forward; the R&D community demonstrates its support for the teams who have invested so much of themselves before pulling the plug; and participants celebrate the projects’ technical achievements – and their teammates – and look forward to the new opportunities ahead.


A Truth Discovery Process


It may sound counter-intuitive that “failures” could be a cause for celebration. However, killing projects is an incredibly important part of effective innovation management. In fact, if you’re not killing projects on a regular basis, you are probably not pursuing enough ideas.


Here at Sullivan Park, we often refer to innovation management as a truth discovery process.  We believe that every program can have a hidden “lie.” By that we mean that every program reaches a point when one of your initial assumptions turns out to be incorrect or something that you really want to be true isn’t. The tough part is, you don’t know what the lie is when you begin, and it varies for each initiative. The technology may not work as expected; the value proposition you defined might be inaccurate; another innovation may come along and obsolete your technology. Any number of your assumptions may be incorrect. If your program can adapt and survive the discovery, you have a winner. If it can’t, the program manager must acknowledge that reality and make the difficult decision to kill the project.


At Corning, we don’t expect every project to succeed. The ability to identify failures early is better than finding out later in the development cycle when programs get more complicated and costly. And it enables us to redeploy our talent on more promising initiatives that will pay off for our customers and investors.


For example, several years ago, Corning discontinued its synthetic green laser program, which had generated a lot of excitement among stakeholders as a potential enabler of cell phone projection systems. Advancements with native green lasers and price erosion in the industry led us to conclude that the market opportunity would be limited. Despite remarkable technical achievements by our development team, the business-case factors did not support an investment in commercial deployment and scale-up. It was a difficult decision for the folks who worked so hard on the project. But it was the right decision for the company.


Some of the lessons learned at our funerals are the importance of rapid prototyping, the need to confirm price points as early as possible, and – most importantly – the need to constantly challenge and refine assumptions.


Rising from the Dead


When we kill projects, we are almost always able to apply the knowledge elsewhere. We also deploy the talent to other initiatives. Program managers who have had failures as well as successes are often the most valuable, because failures help hone their judgment.


Of course, we’ve also had experiences where a project’s death has been greatly exaggerated. Fusion-formed glass is one example. Corning originally developed fusion-formed glass in 1964 to compete with the float process for flat glass. The initial application idea was for automotive windshields, but automakers decided that the quality and capabilities of the glass exceeded their requirements. Two decades later, we found a killer app in liquid crystal displays. Gorilla® Glass is another example. We drew on the experiments we conducted with chemically strengthened glass back in the early 1960s (dubbed “Project Muscle”) to develop our lightweight, damage-resistant cover glass for mobile devices half a century later.


It’s no surprise that the cupcakes featuring zombie arms reaching out from their graves are always one of the biggest hits at the Halloween event – because no one knows better than Corning’s innovation teams that dead projects can come back to life at unexpected times.


No question, innovation program management – and awakening zombies – are not jobs for the faint of heart. But few jobs are as rewarding. Because at the end of the day, killing ideas helps us give life to new innovations. And there’s nothing cooler than that.