Saturday, October 8, 2016

Innovator's dilemma: Being or Doing

One of my jobs is to teach innovators and work with them on medical and social innovations. In course of doing that I not only work with my students and colleagues but also with scores of tech innovators.

Here is a dilemma I come across very often. 

When an innovator has conjured an idea for solving an unmet need - they want themselves and the idea to succeed. While there is no harm in that - and it is indeed desirable - I think a real problem arises when the innovator gets confused between the ‘mirage’ of success and the ‘real’ success.

I will keep my examples narrowly focused in the sector of ‘medical technology’ and ‘social innovations’ - the two sectors I work in.
Suppose a team has decided to solve the problem of ‘availability of safe drinking water’ - which is both a social and a medical problem.

Often a team would start with a clever technology which would most likely be a patent (a patent is NOT a product!) or a yet to be scaled & tested technology in some lab! And in most likelihood it would be half a decade before the team would know if they would even be able to assemble the first prototype that works.

But, ideas are cool! And the innovators are cooler!

They would like to be celebrated, give talks on how they hope to (often misunderstood by the rest of world as if they have already) cracked the problem.

This creates three problems:

a) The focus shifts from the rigour of execution to the coolness of the idea!
b) The (often small) teams behind the (yet to be proven) innovation get their shot of adrenaline from writing about their innovations, winning awards, getting press and being celebrated!
c) The attention is often NOT equal for team members - the one who has a position of power (say a seasoned academic who is a Principal Investigator - a scientific term for a Project Manager or Administrator) or someone with excellent oratory skills (who maybe not the one who has contributed much to the idea itself) or maybe even one who networks the most - steals the show! 

Let us analyse the outcomes of these problems:

a) Shift of Focus: Generating and running around with ideas is cool - execution often is NOT! Everyone wants the nicely painted walls of the futuristic office and nobody wants to manage inventory, deal with people, or generate leads - that is often not exciting enough!

b) False sense of success: Speaking at conferences, giving media bytes and attending networking events often gives a sense of moving ahead in life. You feel you are ’somebody’! But as long as your product or service (the real innovation) has not solved the problem it intended to solve - technically you have become the ‘innovation’. Your product/business/service has failed if it did not even solve a minor portion of the problem it aimed to solve.

c) Steal the show - Yes! That often creates a rift as the one who has been putting one’s head down and executing the technology/idea/business feels cheated. That often kills the camaraderie among the team - the X factor that helps a startup punch above its weight.

Meanwhile, the media (whose real business is to sell advertisements by capturing eye-balls with something of interest!) feeds on the innovators/startups. Not that media attention is a bad thing - it surely helps one get traction, raise funding and find evangelists. Unfortunately, in order to make a story even more attractive it misquotes, misleads and misconstructs information. 

Haven’t you heard that there is a pill already for the ill that you have and is going to come soon?
Worse still, we have been hearing that it has been coming soon for almost a decade?!

This is a sticky territory. The feelings of joy and attention (being!) that humans crave for are much easier to obtain than putting one’s head down and working to solve the problem one started to solve. And once you start getting the taste of ‘being’, the real fuel of achieving what you set out to achieve - the doing part - becomes much more tiring and often appears much more unattractive.

In my opinion some of the greatest successes have been built on doing and not being. 
And in this day and age when just registering a company with limited capital (that is technically a startup) - can give you a high by earning a label of a startup guy (or girl). 

Innovators face the dilemma : Being or Doing!