Sunday, August 23, 2009

To Innovate, Leave Something to Chance

An old classmate of mine since primary school days has an illustrious career in construction project management. Today, he is the managing director of a leading development company listed on the Malaysian stock exchange. I once asked him what is the single most important success factor in construction project management. "Have a very good checklist, and check it religiously", he said.

What he said resonates with several other experienced project managers I spoke with in other fields such as IT project management and event management. Their common mantra -- if you want flawless execution, leave nothing to chance.

Leave nothing to chance -- this mantra has served Singapore well. Indeed, over the years, Singapore has earned a reputation for efficiency and dependability in project execution. Whether it is physical infrastructure development projects like airport and public transport, or events like the IMF convention or F1, our project planners and managers have done well when it comes to executing according to plan.

But this formula for success is only applicable when you are dealing with projects that have two characteristics -- (1) the end-targets can be well-specified ahead of time, and (2) the means to achieve the targets are also known and well-specified. In other words, you know where exactly you want to go, and you know the available roads and means (transport vehicles, fuels etc) you need to take to get there.

Unfortunately, these conditions do not apply when you are embarking on an innovation journey. When you are trying to innovate, you may know what the end goal is (e.g. kill the cancerous cells but leave normal cells unharmed), but you do not know how to get there; or you may have a fantastic new tool, but don't know what you can do with it. Often, you have incomplete knowledge of both.

Much of the innovation literature tells us that successful innovations often come about serendipitiously, i.e. the innovative ideas are often discovered by accidents and for purposess not originally pursued. Chance encounters and unexpected occurences (accidents) feature prominently as impetus for such innovative breakthroughs as the discovery of penicillin, insulin and viagra and the invention of microwave oven, vulcanized rubber, inkjet printer and paypal, just to name a few. However, this runs counter to the mindset of leaving nothing to chance. In the latter mindset, everything is regimented to achieve the planned tasks at hand, and no wandering out of the defined activities is allowed. The chance of accident has already been minimized by meticulous planning, and even if it still happens, contingent plans have already been specified to get you back on track as quickly as possible.

To improve your chance of coming up with something really innovative, however, you need to do the opposite by leaving something to chance. Allow some time to go on an explorative mode rather than your routine exploitative mode -- i.e. broaden your knowledge search to less familiar territories instead of stomping around familiar grounds . Give your ideas room to mutate by reading and trying things outside your normal routine, and having chance encounters with people you normally do not talk to. And when something unexpected does happen, sit back to ponder what it may mean and explore where it may lead you, rather than hurrying to get back on track with whatever you were originally pursuing.

To leave something to chance, you have to leave some time to chance. One of my favourite quotes is a line I read many years ago in a Princeton University brochure when I was looking for universities to apply. It went something like this -- "There is value to time that has no direction, and that can go in any direction." I have taken to heart this advice over the years.

New opportunities are staring at our face everyday. But most of us are so focused on what we are doing (the rate race...) that we miss seeing them. Are you leaving enough time in your life for chance exploration ?


NOTES

For an enjoyable account of serendipitious discoveries in science, read Royston M. Roberts: Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley, 1989.

For a more recent listing of notable serendipitious discoveries and innovations, see the Wikipedia entry on Serendipity.

Exploration vs. exploitation is a central conceptual construct (first introduced by J.G. March) in the innovation management and organization science literatue. If you like to learn more about the distinction between the two modes of innovation and their impact on firm performance, you can read this academic journal article of mine)

12 comments:

StopIt said...

hmm.. those MDA-approved 50K seed funding distributor should read this

Geotacs said...

enjoyed reading this post...

food for thought

thanks for sharing!

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Tabea said...

Really nice and informative blog!

I'm working on a comparative study between the Life Science sectors(focusing on the business climate for start-ups) in Singapore and the Netherlands. I read your article "Adapting a Foreign Direct Investment Strategy to the Knowledge Economy: The Case of Singapore's Emerging Biotechnology Cluster" and was happy to come across a list of indigenous Singaporean Life Sciences firms.. but since the article was published in 2004 I was wondering if you could give some advice on where to find an updated list on Life Sciences companies founded in Singapore. I greatly appreciate your help.

Mel said...

A timely reminder to all aspiring entrepreneurs who are stuck on the hamster wheel on a daily basis...I for one is one of these hamsters looking to get out of the rat race.

triadicmarkets said...

Nice post. It probably does go back to your article about ambidexterity.

However, I would also like to elaborate about your example on killing cancerous cells.

You see, in the drug innovation process, there is actually a disciplined checklist. Exploratory research begin first with compound selection, scientists going to conferences, basic research & etc. Once that is done and there is some reasonable chances that somthing fruitful & profitable might be there, you start conducting preclinical trials to determine toxicity. Efficacy comes later.

Translated to the Singapore case, I think we have not been disciplined about ensuring that there is exploration. We move too fast to exploitative learning because we think that it is more efficient.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a very well-structured post and I liked it a lot.

I think even for the many inventors/innovators who came up with the idea by through serendipity, the subsequent commercialization and follow-through was a rigorous checklist, leaving nothing to chance. In hindsight, the checklist may have been a little short (penicillin testing may not have passed FDA's standards today), but it was a most stringent checklist using the best of their knowledge at that time.

Thanks for writing!
Julia

Marmalade said...

Enjoyed reading this article.

For the matter, a serial entrepreneur (I differentiate the innovator and the entrepreneur) constantly experiences serendipitous encounters.

The question is, with the focus on exam-based assessment, are our teachers and parents giving our children enough time for chance exploration?

brett said...

interesting how you sometimes stop being innovative and just go for an accepted solution without actually trying to improve it…


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Flights to Cebu said...

Very interesting. I had seen it many times yet not felt the urge to blog on it. When you blogged, it made interesting reading.

radhe said...

I liked it so much and very interesting, too! Thanks for sharing the experience.
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