There was a lovely analogy for innovation that I heard in an excellent talk earlier this week by Dr Ali Parsa, an entrepreneur who is busy reinventing healthcare around a singular and not unambitious aim of putting an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth.
He talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s thoughts on ‘desirable difficulties’ (the idea that sometimes performance can improve if the task of learning itself is more difficult) and how the most value often comes in solving the very difficult (but not impossible) problems. Humans, said Ali, share 83% of their DNA with cockroaches. But it’s the 17% that makes that huge difference. So it’s always worth pushing to solve the big problems. To do amazing things.
It reminded me of this Larry Page quote:
“When I talk to most companies, I do think their leaders are pretty short-term focused…It’s pretty difficult to solve big problems in four years. I think it’s probably pretty easy to do it in 20 years. I think our whole system is setup in a way that makes it difficult for leaders of really big companies.”
This, I think, is one of the key challenges in how organisational focus – short-termism against the need to build the new tomorrow. Alongside incremental, marginal improvements, we must create the vision and the space for breakthrough innovation and solving the big and difficult problems. Because that is where genuinely new value resides.