Innovators and organizational doublethink

Both my grandparents and in-laws grew up behind the iron curtain, and so I would regularly hear stories of the alternate reality they would be forced to live through, with the propaganda they were fed markedly different to the realities they actually experienced on a daily basis.

This detachment from reality among officials no doubt played a part in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union as conditions gradually got worse and worse, despite officials believing them to be getting better and better.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced similar situations in our own organizations, with high profile projects lauded even when everyone on the ground can see that they’re a complete flop.

I was at the NHS Expo in Manchester recently, and the doublethink was quite overwhelming.  If you flew in from Mars to attend the event, you would believe the NHS to be the most wonderful innovator, with easy access for the huge range of new technologies and innovations that are poised to disrupt healthcare.

Ask any of those innovators (much less patients themselves) however and the reality is very different.  Indeed, I’ve spoken to many medtech companies whose very business model has been to avoid the NHS in their early stages, precisely because access to the system is so lengthy and byzantine.

Such events provide a kind of mutual back slapping exercise that forges an alternative reality that things are great however.

Over-hyped

It’s an insight into the amount of (over)hype that often surrounds new thinking.  We so want things to work that we spin outcomes that inevitably proved much harder than we expected.  It’s not something that’s confined purely to the corporate sector. A recent study from the University of Sydney found that around 25% of biomedical research papers inflated their findings.

The researchers identified a wide range of scientific spin, with some of the more popular methods including:

  • Making inappropriate claims about statistically non-significant results
  • Making inappropriate recommendations for clinical practice that were not supported by study results
  • Attributing causality when that was not possible
  • Selective reporting, such as emphasizing only statistically significant or subsets of data in the conclusions
  • Presenting data in a more favorable light than was warranted, for example writing overly optimistic abstracts, misleadingly describing the study design and under-reporting adverse events.

Alternative reality

I wonder whether many of our innovation projects fall into the same bucket?  How many incubators, accelerators, skunkworks and co-working spaces have actually generated new products and services that have made a material benefit to the bottom line of the host organization?

Whilst there are undoubtedly some hugely successful innovation support networks (Y-Combinator springs to mind), the vast majority have a very sketchy track record, with even those success stories of startups that do graduate tangentially linked to the support offered by the incubator.  There’s no magic sauce that seems to deliver repeated success.

Instead, many fall into the trap of believing they’re innovating merely by existing, despite their efforts having such terrible ROI.  It’s taking the ‘failure is not an option’ mindset that dominates many corporate cultures and trying to transpose it onto an entrepreneurial environment where failure is inevitable.

Indeed, one study of incubators and accelerators Britain, Germany and the United States found that the environments were not motivating at all for startups, and almost did more harm than good for their growth prospects.

Not only do sponsors often regard the incubator as proof of their innovation prowess, but startups often regard acceptance into the incubator as job done.  It’s a conflation of being busy as being productive when the two are certainly not the same thing.

If we are to innovate successfully then we not only need to appreciate that it’s hard work, but we also need to be candid in how we report the results of our work.  It’s much better to own up to less than stellar results, if that’s what they are, than to kid ourselves that everything is going well.

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