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What do innovators and skaters have in common?

September 1, 2011 Comments off

My wife loves to watch skating competitions on TV.  I love to watch baseball.  So we compromise and watch skating.

I’ve developed enormous respect for these young athletes, not just for their skill—which is breathtakingly beautiful—but for their guts.  Every time they hit the ice they are taking a huge risk.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  When it doesn’t, they pick themselves up and continue as if nothing happened.  Very, very impressive.

We have a lot to learn from these kids.  They take risks, they experiment, and they fail over and over again before they succeed.  But they do it anyway.  They are driven by some mysterious force to push themselves into new territory.

It’s that willingness to fail that skaters share in common with innovators, and it’s that willingness to fail that I find absent in the way most of us (including yours truly) live our daily professional lives.  Who wants to be known as a failure?  Imagine a grant proposal to a funding agency concluding with a statement something like: “this line of inquiry is most likely going to fail, but please give me a boatload of money to try.”

And yet that’s the way innovation in nature works.  It fails, and fails, and fails, and every once in a while, it succeeds.  When it fails, the organism perishes; when it succeeds, the organism flourishes.  The basic principle is diversify, select, and amplify.  To diversify means to take risks, which means to fail.  A lot.

But in a university do we encourage failure?  Do we even tolerate failure?  I don’t think so.  At least I haven’t seen it.  A philosopher once opined that competitive people are conformist—the more competitive the more conformist.  To be competitive means to conform to the same standards of evaluation, to play by the same rules.  And we academics, if we are anything, are competitive animals.  We play by the same rules.  We want to be published in prestigious journals, the ones that use standards of evaluation that have passed the test of time, and that everyone else accepts.

But to do breakthrough innovative thinking often means to invent a whole new game with a whole new set of rules that no one has ever seen before.  That’s why scientists like to tell the joke (but of course it’s not entirely a joke!) that breakthrough innovation in science passes through three stages.  In the first stage, it is ignored.  In the second stage, it is bitterly attacked.  In the third stage, it is accepted and everyone knew it was right all along.

So how do we encourage game-changing innovation in the university?  How do we create an environment in which failure is possible and innovation occurs because of and not in spite of the institutional structure we have created?  I don’t know.  Do you?

For an interesting twist on this subject, check out the following piece by John Cook, the co-founder of Geekwire.com, on why Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith, the founders of Box.net, left Seattle for the Bay area to grow their company:

http://www.geekwire.com/2011/boxnet-case-study-seattle-hold-young-tech-talent.

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