Monday, May 16, 2011

Innovation and Parallel Processing

Tim Harford
This idea of allowing several ideas to develop in parallel runs counter to our instincts: We naturally tend to ask, "What is the best option?" and concentrate on that. But given that life is so unpredictable, what seemed initially like an inferior option may turn out to be exactly what we need. It's sensible in many areas of life to leave room for exploring parallel possibilities—if you want to make friends, join several social clubs, not just the one that appears most promising—but it is particularly true in the area of innovation, where a single good idea or new technology can be so valuable. In an uncertain world, we need more than just Plan A; and that means finding safe havens for Plans B, C, D, and beyond.
That is from an excerpt in Slate from Tim Harford's new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure.

Tim notes how breakthrough ideas often come from outside the mainstream.  The famed British Spitfire plane is credited by many with having prevented defeat by Germany in WWII.  Yet the plane almost never came to be.  Not only was the inventor unconventional, but so was the source of funding at a time when the project was nearly cancelled:
Rescue came from the most unlikely character: Dame Fanny Houston, born in humble circumstances, had become the richest woman in the country after marrying a shipping millionaire and inheriting his fortune. Lady Houston's eclectic philanthropy knew few bounds: She supported oppressed Christians in Russia, coalminers, and the women's rights movement. And in 1931 she wrote a check to Supermarine that covered the entire development costs of the Spitfire's predecessor, the S6. Lady Houston was furious at the government's lack of support: "My blood boiled in indignation, for I know that every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself against all-comers." The S6 flew at an astonishing speed of 407.5 mph less than three decades after the Wright Brothers launched the Wright Flyer. England's pride was intact, and so was the Spitfire project. No wonder the historian A.J.P. Taylor later remarked that "the Battle of Britain was won by Chamberlain, or perhaps by Lady Houston." 
(Note that given her range of interests, no one would have accused Dame Houston of practicing 'strategic philanthropy!')

Hat tip for this excerpt to Michael Woolcock of the World Bank and Harvard.  His own recent blog makes excellent related points concerning aid initiatives. I have been heavily influenced in my own thinking by discussions with Michael over the years.