Friday, October 1, 2010

A failure of imagination

ImaginationWhen a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.

When I first began going to scientific conferences to present my graduate work, I could always count on questions from grumpy older scientists.

These would be distinguished folks who remembered a similar paper from 40 years ago, a case report that disproved my thesis, an alternative hypothesis that they hatched over sherry with another grumpy elder.  It’s a tricky confrontation, because I can’t ignore them, can’t take them head-on, and often can’t understand what they’ve mumbled. Over the years, I’ve perfected a two—step deflection of a beaming embrace of the idea, followed by an invitation to discuss it over coffee.

I’d note, however, that this technique did not work when my thesis advisor jumped up during my Defense to erase a few equations and propose an alternate idea in front of my Examining Committee.

Now that I’m birch-bark blond and over-50, I’m trying not to fall prey to the disease (or at least to be constructive when I’m tempted).

Still, I genuinely do see old ideas come around again, and again, at scientific conferences.  In the coffee sessions this week, a few of us wondered why.  The easy answer is that these examples are genuinely good ideas that solve significant problems, and are thus discovered anew by each generation.  Alternatively,

Technology lagged the concept: wireless data visualization had to wait for 3G cell phones.

Technology led the science: patients could be cooled long before we were sure it did any good.

It takes time for an idea to find it’s audience.  Conventional wisdom holds that a medical device can get to idea to market within five years.  But it takes at least another five for the funding-study-publication cycle to generate a good literature base from multiple authors. Adoption into Guidelines and reimbursement codes could take another five.  During that decade–long process from idea to standard of care, lots of other people will start down the same path independently.

Triangle ShapesBut the most frustrating reason is a simple one: Failure of Imagination.

I know so many instances where good ideas, working in prototype, delighting clinicians, were not pursued because senior managers couldn’t back the project.  Lack of understanding (of the innovation or the market), competition for resources, ‘making the tough decisions’ in favor of safe alternatives all contributed to the problem.  But it’s corrosive: in the worst cases, I’ve lost not just the project, but talent as the whole team faltered, then departed.

At worst, management keeps a research group of bright people only as an operating reserve, never intending productive output.  ‘Let’ them pursue personal projects in the off-periods, then throw them at problems in times of need.

I have, in retrospect, left jobs over chronic Failure of Imagination, never for anything else.  It just makes life impossible, no matter what the mission statement says.

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

quotes from Arthur Clarke, Profile of the Future.

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