Great Ideas or Great Impact?

Talking about innovation is terrific. Having global impact is better.

Nurses in Haiti observing DripAssist for the first time

When I’m working as a professor and helping students with projects, often the most energetic part is the earliest stages of brainstorming: generating ideas, playing around with scenarios, and unleashing our imagination. Iteration, refinement, and retrenchment can often feel like a slog. Going even further, and turning ideas into products and businesses that will have global impact requires a whole other set of skills as you move through marketing, logistics, and so much more.

People start companies for lots of reasons, but usually key among those is the desire to have an impact on the world. What we often fail to realize is that what it takes for effective idea generation is very different than what it takes to reach sustainable scale. The cultural gaps between these stages can be one of the biggest obstacles to innovation.

In the 1950s, British scientist C.P. Snow wrote about what he referred to as “two cultures,” outlining the gaps between humanities scholars and scientists, illustrating how common it was for experts in one area to be largely illiterate about the other. His argument was that the cultural gaps between the humanities and science made it impossible for society to solve the most pressing problems.

Snow was living in a time (and place) where the humanities often seemed in ascendance and where science was met with skepticism.Today we’re on an opposite trajectory, with science, technology and engineering ascendant and liberal arts education relegated largely to anxiety about career paths.

Despite that difference, today we face the same kind of problems -- ones that require a deeper understanding of society, culture, and human interaction in order develop solutions that scale worldwide. Technical knowledge alone will not allow us to create usable software, or simple tools for global users, or ethical and effective algorithms. In other words, technical skills are necessary, but not sufficient.

As we attempt to solve those difficult problems and build the companies that will sustain those solutions, we face a similar two culture problem within the lifecycle of innovation. As we set out to create innovative solutions to complex problems, and to move from idea to impact, we need to balance technical skills and the humanities; however, we also need to balance early stage ideation with the activities required to launch a product. It’s the startup version of a two culture problem -- how to cultivate the brainstorming and open-endedness of idea generation with the tactical and strategic processes of building a business.

When we talk about innovation, we tend to focus more heavily on the idea generation culture, and less on the culture of creating mechanisms for sustainable scale. But global innovation requires the full participation of both cultures, and an openness on both sides to listen and learn from the other. Particularly in the social innovation space, we see consistent challenges building repeatable pathways that carry ideas through to sustainable impact.

C.P Snow argued that solving the two culture problem required respect for and curiosity about the other. Cultivating innovative ideas so they grow to the point of impact requires a similar willingness to cross boundaries. At Shift Labs, we’ve built our bridges using human centered design, but there are a variety of tools that can help an enterprise break down internal barriers and commit to the kind of flexibility that leads to sustainable innovation.

What’s yours?

Beth Kolko

Co-founder & CEO