years or 15 years (or even their entire career), it is either because it is really good work and really exciting, or they appear to be uncomfortable because they know that you know and they know that everybody knows that they are doing fine work, but it is not leading edge. In that case, they say something like, "Well, that's where my funding is," or "that's where my reputation is established," or "that's the only area I can get funded to work in," or a similar explanation. It is completely different for us; we don't have those constraints.
We necessarily create a potentially difficult situation because we hire highly motivated, intelligent, driven people, usually very contrary to the mainstream. These, of course, are just the people who are going to discover things. The problem comes when they've been doing their work for a while, and somewhere someone decides that this is not the best work for them to be doing. Telling them this is awkward, uncomfortable—you name the adjective. But, in the end, we tell them that we just don't think the project they are working on is the best thing that they could be doing for IBM. They don't necessarily agree with us, and there may be some contention about the decision. Given their input, we think about the issue very long and hard and eventually either the project is terminated, or the individual prevails.
The process described above also applies to very large projects, projects that have gone well beyond what I call the research stage. For example, when I first joined IBM 15 years ago, we were developing Josephson junction technology for superconducting computers. The project involved 50 to 100 people. When it was decided that Josephson junction technology was never going to be a viable technology, the project was simply terminated. It is much easier to terminate a large project of that sort—the costs are high, the hoped-for return dwindling. You simply place the staff into other projects or try to get them interested in other scientific and/or technical problems.
It is much more difficult when only one or two research staff are involved in a project. It is not costing a lot of money, and even if you really don't believe it's the best thing for them to be doing for the corporation, or necessarily even for their own career, it is difficult to pull the plug when they disagree. At that point it becomes a matter of management judgment and employee persistence.