Innovation by enforcing deadlines and experimentation

Lots been going on recently so I am very behind on the blogging front but just wanted to capture a point made by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, in a relatively recent interview available via McKinsey here (and this is from memory so not verbatim – please follow the link above for the video to hear exactly how it was expressed):

"My job as leader is not to make decisions, as there are enough smart people around Google who know what the best course of action should be, rather it is to enforce deadlines. If I don't enforce a deadline then people just analyse and talk and talk and become a University! The best way to enforce a deadline is a crisis, so if one doesn't exist it helps to create one."

I thought this quote is fascinating for several reasons. a) Leaders are so often portrayed as all knowing so it's refreshing to hear him say that others know best. But b) the point about becoming a University if you don't enforce a deadline i.e. make a decision is pretty cutting but also pretty insightful.

My frustration with academe, and I say this as someone who nearly pursued it as a career, is that it's all analysis and no action. Let me give you a quick example from personal experience. When I graduated I asked a friend who had also recently graduated and studied Philosophy "What was the one big thing you took away from your degree?". The answer was honest, fascinating and depressing (for me) in equal measure. He said "I've learned how not to believe in anything – how nothing can be truly logical and trusted and everything can be deconstructed"!

Now I studied Physics so am not shy of logic noranalysis, however I am less patient these days when the output of a piece of research is to do more research. As Karl Marx has on his grave (and btw I'm no communist)

"the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

I believe we have more than enough talk and analysis in our government, business and academic institutions. What we lack is the courage to act decisively. We need more space to experiment safely and act on both data at our disposal but also our intuition born of experience. I guess this is what we are trying to do at Nesta Connect and whilst it can be often challenging and by no means always works, that is why it is fun and also, on occasions makes a real difference.

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  1. On your quote: “We need more space to experiment safely and act on both data at our disposal but also our intuition born of experience.”
    Right on! Couldn’t agree more.
    I’m with non-profit Business Innovation Factory in the States and we were founded on that very idea.
    Making innovation central to an organization or a community is easy to say but getting below the rhetoric is difficult. Many competent leaders have learned the hard way that a big bang approach to change that turns the entire organization on its side is not only hard, it’s expensive and risky. The question facing all leaders is how to keep current business models producing while experimenting with new ways to deliver value at the same time.
    We believe what organizations need is a safe and manageable environment to explore and test new business models—a real world test-bed where public and private sector players can collaborate and innovate without disrupting current operation.
    In a nutshell that’s what were all about. Happy to share more…one of our board members clued me in to NESTA a while back. I’ve been a fan of your outputs.
    Cheers – Chris

  2. I think it’s a shame that an organisation such as NESTA, or part of NESTA’s management team, displays such a simplistic and negative view of academia. Your blog invites people to “take part in the debate that will make innovation flourish in the UK.” I’m not sure how the attitude displayed by Roland Harwood will allow any innovation to flourish. It is my understanding that Universities play a vital role in the economy and in particular the advancement of knowledge that enables social, technological and scientific innovation.
    I’m sure that most of the NESTA staff went to University, as well-educated people I’m sure they appreciate the hard word, effort and ‘real world’ change that Universities foster and afford them.
    In terms of the idea that ALL of academia is “all analysis and no action” – I’d like to ask exactly how you’ve worked this one out – what ‘action’ are you looking for? Wealth creation? Job generation? Social change? Social mobility? Scientific advancement? New medical techniques and treatments? Insightful social policy? Learning? Innovation? If it is any of these, I think you should search further than your mate the Philosophy graduate!
    Academia bashing is cheap, I’d hope for a higher level of debate from NESTA.

  3. Matt,
    I really didn’t mean to appear to be academia bashing and apologies if I caused any offence.
    If you look at many of the other posts in this blog or at some of the projects we are involved with I hope it is clear that I absolutely agree with (your words) “Universities play a vital role in the economy and in particular the advancement of knowledge that enables social, technological and scientific innovation.”
    In fact I would go so far as to say that Universities are the most important institutions in a countries innovation network precisely because of the dense ecosystem or learning, exploration, employment, training that gravitates around them.
    That particular post was prompted primarily by the quoted comments by Google’s CEO but also by my frustration with the total lack of focus in a couple of academic workshops I had recently participated in. Your comment has triggered some thoughts about how I think universities could evolve which I’d like to think about and perhaps blog about at a later date.
    Christine – thanks also for your comment. I’m sorry I haven’t responded sooner but yes, I’d always be keen to learn more about what you are doing.

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