Thursday, April 11, 2013

Risk A Vision

Enough nonsense crosses my path that I have been thinking about the ways in which innovation happens. Its usually an outsider, a person who doesnt think too hard about rules, a rebel. Someone who implicitly knows THE assumptions of the day are actually holding progress hostage. The intuitive feeling for most people would be to simply press ahead, work from within the system, to effect incremental change.

Yet innovation is almost always something larger than incremental. It opens up possibilities where there were none before. It naturally makes you consider other perspectives, options, etc. It comes through revolution -  overthrowing a system of control that was suffocating. It is always a counter intuitive example.

Yet somehow, as a society, we have found ways to control or manage such things. That some process completely understood by people could lead one to innovate. Yet with all this control, we seem to be rather adept at running things into the ground. We keep rediscovering what it means to fail and yet not understanding how total control, perceived or otherwise, led to failure. Some might have you believe that this type of failure is actually a part of the process of success.

What I think marks innovation is perspective not clouded by limitation. Sure you have to fail before you succeed. Failure isnt the goal however. Its the knowledge gained, the perspective altered or rearranged, and the process sharpened. Innovation is very much a step function improvement. A rare event.

But you can not control for it or put rules around it or dedicate a fraction of time to it. Those rules are meant for focus, iterative development, and incremental advances. Maybe you want to challenge me here at this point. "Doesnt that sound like innovation?" It is perhaps counter intuitive but no it isnt innovation. Innovation is all about changing that process from making some thing to exploring the vision of that idea. The result of innovation might be a thing, but that thing was born out of a new way of thinking.

Most of our scientific organizations rely on this. Your proposal to NSF might require you change the way the problem is thought about. To develop new ways of thinking. To tackle problems that are elusive and demand new solutions; to push the envelope of knowledge.

Innovation seldom comes from resource constrained environments. In fact I might argue that it necessarily does not come from there. It will evolve externally, never even making its way into that environment ... why would it? It would be killed in that hostile environment. We speak about topics like critical mass, institutional memory, great people that drive innovation. At times this is true. But seldom does this come at a time when the belts are tightened. It almost always happens in spurts when there is aplenty. In fact it doesnt even have to mean money. It could be people or resources. Any constrained environment, cut off from perspective becomes stagnant.

But the major factor in innovation, and probably the most important player: Risk. Identifying it, seeking it and taking it. The people that innovate arent good at taking risk, they are good at ignoring the risk they are taking. In fact, I think when people look back at it, they say "oh yeah we were taking a big risk but...".  The biggest risk is that you dont take a risk. And that is what our culture has nurtured. We identify the risk and play it safe ... so called risk aversion. More like innovation aversion.