THE BLOG
09/22/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Innovation: Hedge First, Optimize Later

There is a sequence to growth, an implicit order. Consecutive development activities are initiated and concluded by the forward and aft positions. We look out to discover opportunities and threats to our growth before we may streamline our actions to maximize their value to us. First, the unknown must be found and revealed. This is not only to minimize the risk of failure but to speculate where opportunities for growth may abound. Investor and scientist alike know well the value of spreading out when the future is impenetrable.

For example, venture capitalists invest in dozens of diverse companies in the early or angel phases in order to quickly learn which approach will win the day. It's less about natural selection and more about learning what the fish are biting. In subsequent rounds of investment the sums get larger and the range, of possible solutions become optimized until they grow to sufficient scale to provide spectacular returns to the investors. Efficiency is the final stage, otherwise we move with all due speed to our undoing. The rich do in fact get richer not simply because they have "risk" capital, but more from the way in which they manage it. To bet it all on a sure thing is either to invest in something so incremental that only those firms with a quasi-monopoly can prevail or something so new that the level of risk is unmanageable - Viva Las Vegas!

Unfortunately, this irrational exuberance cuts a destructive path through the lives of many. They know their soul mate or place to bliss or vocation all without the benefit of test or trial because they fear they will get disconfirming feedback. It's not that we should not pursue our aspirations or believe in emerging opportunities but rather that we should lure them out bit by bit with a wide array of real bait. What moves the bobber is not self-fulfilling but an indication and perhaps an affirmation that what we seek has an appetite to grow as well.

It seems counterintuitive that big growth and its companion success should typically be preceded by prudent experiments that are designed to produce constructive failure, but as the journeymen say, "You don't know what you know until you know it." Maybe the genius of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) wasn't their oracular foresight but rather their unwavering belief that future generations would continue to make it up as they went along. To do the latter is to be both mindful and faithful. Wishing is an essential part of our growth while evidence is paying attention to the answers given.

Only the perfect walk in straight lines from hither to yon and only the trenchant believe in perfect people. The path to the future is ever winding and walked by those brave irregulars who constantly shift their weight and correct their course. As with innovation, we must first lose our way in the complexity of possibilities before we may find our one true path.