BioPharma Beat: Imagination Is More Important Than Innovation

August 5, 2014
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I know this will sound like heresy to most people in the “innovation machine” who could never accept that anything can be more important than innovation itself. But, in my view, innovation is more of the process and the output – and is not the actual catalyst. Indeed, many so-called innovations are occasionally truly novel and disruptive but, more frequently, they are solutions and ways of doing things that are only incrementally better. Often this is because they are not rooted on a base of imaginative thinking. 

I know this will sound like heresy to most people in the “innovation machine” who could never accept that anything can be more important than innovation itself. But, in my view, innovation is more of the process and the output – and is not the actual catalyst. Indeed, many so-called innovations are occasionally truly novel and disruptive but, more frequently, they are solutions and ways of doing things that are only incrementally better. Often this is because they are not rooted on a base of imaginative thinking. 

Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Just because one knows a subject very well, or because one knows how to get from here to there, it does not mean that we are able to solve unusual problems, to satisfy unidentified needs, or to uncover something completely new.

biopharma beat innovation and imaginationThis brings us to healthcare. The vast majority of medical and biopharma R&D, most of what we call “healthcare systems innovation,” the bulk of healthcare reform, and a huge part of “innovation” time and money, go towards mere incremental improvements. Take any disease or therapeutic area; when you compare our understanding and tools today versus what we had 30 years ago, the difference seems truly dramatic; but looking at it closer, we can see that it is made up of hundreds or thousands of small incremental changes and, in some cases, no real changes at all (with “me-too” products for example). Not that those incremental improvements don’t bring us many benefits – I am a big proponent of “continuous improvement” – but we can hardly equate this with breakthrough innovation.

All of this comes about this way because of the “innovation machine” which is composed of traditional scientists and engineers, consultants, subject-matter experts, accountants, and bureaucrats, who, for the most part, are operating with a risk-minimization and incrementalism mindset. If you go too far off-course, you’ll get pulled right back to “manage risks,” “increase the probability of success,” “conserve resources for high priorities,” or “deliver financial targets” – we’ve heard it all, many times over. Even when people are given a certain freedom to operate and are freed to take more risks, the guard-rails are clearly prescribed and the ropes are ready to rein you back in.

Truly innovative developments come about rooted on dreams and great imagination.

Einstein, in that same quote above, continued: “…for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Imagination, what we may call dreaming, creates unlimited worlds of possibilities and is not only the territory of artists or rebellious spirits.

When you put smart people with the right resources in the right environment – and with minimal constraints – amazing things tend to happen.

There are many stories about scientists in big pharma or biotech labs having made major discoveries while tinkering with sideline pet projects. Many of Google’s most successful products and tools came about from employees being given up to 20% of their paid time to tinker on whatever side project they chose. We’ve heard repeatedly of stories of founders with monomaniac missions. Proverbial shower or napkin ideas are not a product of ‘innovation process engineering.’ 

The “innovation machine” is addicted to deconstructing the past, coming up with simple-sounding magical success-factor lists, and building simplistic models and recipes as if those innovations could be easily reproduced or replicated. Think smartphones like the iPhone; think statins for dyslipidemias; think angiogenesis inhibitors for cancer. After the first inventions, which were truly rooted on imagination, everyone has been trying to innovate in the same spaces, and have been spending huge amounts of resources while at it. The results have ranged from complete failures at worst, to incremental improvements at best. Yet, expertly, they have all been described as “innovations”.

One lesson in all of this is to beware of those who claim to have expertise and wisdom to solve healthcare problems within the current economic, medical, scientific and political spheres and knowhow. If the search remains in those circles, it is guaranteed we will end up with incremental or half-hearted compromised solutions. What we need is for dreamers who can imagine solutions that experts say are too difficult or impossible or unpopular. Elon Musk, imagined a very successful electric vehicle (Tesla), and an economically-viable private rocket-ship company (SpaceX) in competition with many powerful and established expert companies and institutions that said it could never be done – yet, he’s showing everyone what is possible. We need an Elon Musk in healthcare.

It is very tempting to write about “top ten ways to becoming more imaginative,” but I won’t do this. Yes, there are things we can all do that can help with creative thinking, imagination, and ideation. But why subject us to yet another constraining recipe?

Go dream and dream big!!!