By Max Michael, MD, dean, UAB School of Public Health
Innovation in the life sciences is rapidly improving our daily lives. But the magnitude of each change along the way seems increasingly small as the time to explore an odd hunch or an ah-ha moment — often a vital criterion for innovation — lessens. Within companies of all types, the motivation for transformational ideas is often sacrificed in favor of profits and near-term thinking.
Conversely, many innovation experts claim the best opportunity for new ideas to emerge and flourish occurs when there is time to think and incubate an idea, hold interdisciplinary discussions, encourage a willingness to fail, and spend time with one another in an unencumbered space. Some companies and universities have begun adopting these principles. For example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Public Health recently opened a dedicated space called The Edge of Chaos to promote such an environment for transformational innovation. If you want to create a similar climate in your organization, consider taking the following foundational steps:
Carve Out Time to Think
Investing in time for ideas has dividends that translate into new products and increased earnings over time. For example, Google incorporates this into its workplace cultures, allowing employees to spend 20% of their time during a workday to pursue hunches. This has led to the creation of vital pieces to its portfolio like Gmail, Google News, and Adwords. Time alone, however, is not a solution. It must also be supported by progress reports, the involvement of peers in approving or contributing to the work, and an active management team that sees value in the potential for something big. Like capitalism, freedom with some parameters creates a thriving environment for new ideas. Make it a point to bring people together from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to grapple with a complex problem. Remember, innovation dies in silos.
Failure is Success
Many successful entrepreneurs have failed on their way to success. Yet the concept is still taboo. Innovation thrives when taking risks and embracing failures. Thus, life science companies should look at how to incorporate an acceptance of failure as a part of their culture, which starts at the top. C-level leadership needs to communicate healthy risk-taking. Just look to Silicon Valley, where Facebook employees are encouraged from the top down to “fail faster.” Failures of the incremental variety often lead to a larger discovery.
In a business world that strives for order and structure in a quest for ROI, try inviting a little chaos into your company. Organization and efficiency can often stifle innovation, which is an uncomfortable thought for most of those in the board room. Instead, dedicate the time, open up your environment to new influences, and promote the benefits of failure. You might just “randomly” stumble across that next great life science advancement.