Innovation: Giant Leaps Versus Marginal Gains

Tim Harford at WIRED2012

There was a journalist’s strike at the BBC yesterday, resulting in some programme changes. In particular, on the morning radio, in place of the customary news and interviews, there were a number of really inspiring audio documentaries.

One that really caught my attention was a talk by Tim Harford. The content was similar to a talk he gave at Wired2012 (see video above). His theme was success in innovation and two key types: giant steps and marginal improvements. In fact, this general topic was the original motivation for the title of my blog: Steps & Leaps!

Most innovations are marginal improvements that produce clear-cut short-term gains. They can be easily understood as they build on what’s already there; they refine the landscape. Giant leaps take you to places you don’t even recognise as the landscape has completely changed. Both types are obviously important for progress but for different reasons (and timescales).

Marginal Gains: He illustrates this via the winning ability of the UK cycling team in the 2012 Olympics – they even had a ‘Head of Marginal Gains’, Matt Parker:

A sports scientist who now runs a team of 15 Marginal Gains specialists, ranging from experts in biomechanics to nutrition to physiotherapy, so far 28 major projects have been completed in the last two and a half years. Some, like the work they will do on bikes and kit, last up to four years – a full Olympic cycle, whilst others, like athlete development, stretch out of sight of London, time-wise.

Giant Steps: On the other hand, Dr Mario Capecchi, who pioneered gene targeting (which has transformed the study of key diseases), was thought of as a scientific outsider:

Not too long ago, the notion that scientists could manipulate genes to create animal models of human disease seemed virtually impossible, even to many researchers. Dogged research by Mario Capecchi and others made it a reality. Capecchi is credited with developing a powerful technology known as gene targeting. This technology has allowed scientists to engineer mice with conditions such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and high blood pressure—a feat that has revolutionized the study of human disease.

Bearing both in mind, Radford then asks the interesting question as to how you can ‘organise for innovation’. In particular, how can you stimulate giant leaps but in a way that doesn’t require exceptional individuals to buck the system (as with Capecchi)?

One example of an organisation that successfully does this is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) which only funds big, bold steps – in fact it’s required there’s a substantial chance of ‘failure’!

At HHMI, the engines of discovery are powered by approximately 330 HHMI investigators who direct laboratories on the campuses of nearly 70 universities and other research organizations throughout the United States. By appointing scientists as Hughes investigators—rather than awarding them research grants—HHMI is guided by the principle of “people, not projects.” Investigators have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, to change direction in their research. Moreover, they have support to follow their ideas through to fruition—even if that process takes a very long time.

Through another initiative, HHMI identified some of the nation’s most promising scientists to receive support at a critical early stage of their careers. Each early career scientist has a six-year, nonrenewable appointment to the Institute and along with it the freedom to focus on his or her boldest—and potentially transformative—research ideas without having to worry about obtaining grants to fund those experiments.

It’s interesting that they focus (the emphasis above in bold is mine) on the two key aspects of ‘time’ (for lots of ‘failures’) and ‘boldness’ (if it works it will make a substantive difference).

It’s really good to learn that the terms ‘organisation’ and ‘series of giant leaps’ can actually go hand in hand!


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