When the Innovative & Creative "Play it Safe"

08/09/2010 04:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Continuing the challenge of reflecting the state of innovation, in my previous post "Turning Loss into a Positive," I referenced an article in the New York Times which makes the point that truly innovative medical research projects do not get funding.

Ironically the title says it all: "Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe".

"'The problem in science is that the way you get ahead is by staying within narrow parameters and doing what other people are doing,' Dr. Brawley said. 'No one wants to fund wild new ideas.'" (Brawley is identified in the article as the Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society)

But science isn't the only risk-averse arena. So is the creative industry, all the way down to the lonely, independent screenplay writer. In a speech at Chautauqua Institution, August 7, 2009, Frank Pierson, (identified as the artistic director and distinguished filmmaker-in-residence at the American Film Institute the local newspaper covering the speech) shared his concern that the quality of today's film industry suffers from independent, freelance writers practicing self-censorship - "Why would a writer spend a year to write a screenplay that no banker would finance?"

Meanwhile, after several years of lackluster returns, the Venture Industry is also playing it safe. According to Mark Suster, "The VC industry has performed terribly over the past 10 years. Many firms didn't even return LPs (Limited Partners) their original money let alone a profit." Mark explains, the industry is reducing risk by playing the numbers game - investing seed money in more lean start-ups and playing the odds that something will take off. The example many are looking to is Y Combinator on the West Coast - a seed fund for young people with ideas for start-ups.

But here's a surer bet than the "spray it against the wall and hope" strategy: Go Back to the Future.

1) If necessity is the mother of invention, then experience is a goldmine. When innovating, some of the best ideas come from the people who have spent a career immersed in the problem - consistent with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which posits that it takes 10,000 hours to be really good at something.

For example, Dr. Eileen K. Jaffe is featured in the NYT article. After 25 years of scientific research, she "stumbled upon results that went against textbook explanations, suggesting that it might be possible to find an entirely new class of drugs that could disable proteins that fuel cancer cells." But in a system that plays it safe, she could not find funding to pursue her theory:

"But her grant proposal was rejected out of hand by the institutes of health, not even discussed by a review panel. . . Dr. Jaffe is just conceiving her project; it is much to soon to know whether it will result in a revolutionary drug. . . 'They said I don't have preliminary results,' she said. 'Of course I don't. I need the grant money to get them.'"

The benefits of investing in Jaffe's unproven hypothesis probably go beyond what Gladwell documents in his examples. After all, when immersed in a business over a long period, not only is the current problem "digested" in whatever side or layer of the brain is responsible for creativity, but also the potential "unintended" consequences of potential solutions are intuited. As a result, experience can contribute good solutions and those which are fundamentally more executable.

2) It takes a "culture of we" to bring an idea to life. Frank Pierson, credited with the screenplay for Cool Hand Luke, as a contract writer for a Studio, claims that movies like this were: "'the product of creative cross-fertilization, in a social setting that valued and encouraged good storytelling before raw profit.'"

In his speech, Frank described the atmosphere of contract writers who were, literally and figuratively, thrown together to produce a creative product. The camaraderie that comes from collaborating may be a lost secret to productive creativity. Furthermore, these writers weren't self-censoring out of concern for "profit." They were paid salary as contract workers, whether they produced or not.

The effectiveness of this model is consistent with Daniel Pink's surprising summary of research on motivating "cerebral" productivity . . .

Net, by "playing it safe" we risk disrupting creativity instead of disrupting the establishment. To break the cycle of lack of innovation success, an untapped opportunity is to go back to the future with three strategies: engage those who have been immersed in the problem and have a passion to "fix it", create an environment where the camaraderie of collaboration can work its magic, and improve productivity with a base compensation plan instead of the pure back-end reward.