Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Irony of Consolidating Innovation

Innovation competition is a common mechanism for developing novel products or or otherwise encouraging creative people to do what they do best – create.  Entire organizations are formed around innovation (IDEO being a high-profile example).

The logic that high rewards attract high performers is reasonable.  And consolidating resources to fund two critically acclaimed novel inventions arguably makes more sense than dividing up the limited funds among 20+ ideas with variable viability.

But these assumptions only work if one makes the assumption that the inception of an idea is a planned process with an “innovative index” directly proportional to effort.  Only then can one make the conclusion that bigger rewards draws better ideas – it does so because people try harder.

But what if creativity is not an effort-dependent activity?  What if innovation, like chemical reactions in equilibrium, only appears predictable on the macroscopic level but is in fact sporadic and dependent on some lucky combination of kinetic creative energy colliding against one another?

It then comes as no surprise that many NIH-funded projects are sustaining innovations, those creating incremental improvements to existing technology.  2% improvement in blood pressure control.  Statistically significant but clinically undetectable improvements in cholesterol control.   Seven Tesla MRIs.  Sustaining innovations, by definition, build on a solid precedence and have higher probability of showing positive results, albeit by a smaller magnitudes.

Disruptive innovations are the smartphones, the PCR machine, the first AML chemotherapy.  They wield the ability to change entire industries; they are also rare.  They are one-in-a-million chemical reactions that require collision at a precise angle with the right kinetic energy.  One might even say that at the start, the inception of a disruptive innovations is sporadic, a lucky accident.

If earth-shaking novel ideas occur by chemical reaction, then it may be clear what we as a society must do to foster them.  The chemist does not give her molecules incentives and rewards for making a carbon-carbon bond.  Instead, the chemist selects the ideal solvent to make the reaction possible, offers a catalyst to lower the activation energy, and gently heats the primordial soup of innovation.

Then she waits, for above all, innovation takes time.  Innovation can’t be made to happen; it can only be allowed to happen.

The hardest thing I’m learning

The hardest thing a novice radiology learns is where to see the critical finding leading to the right diagnosis.

The second hardest thing a novice radiologist learns is how to ignore the noise.

The Quest for Working Happily Ever After

Heart rate mildly elevated, the sweat glands open, eyes fixated on the task at hand.   Time feels slow – or even frozen – but also at once flies by between each glance of the watch.  It’s an experience termed flow, which has been famously described by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in a book by its namesake.

Flow has many components, but the most easily understood set include challenge and feedback – engaging in a task just sufficiently difficult to the level of ability and knowing immediately whether you did the right thing.

Like Fight Club, the experience was in everyone’s face; Csikszentmihalyi just made it visible.  The experience was on everyone’s tongue, and he just gave it a name.  In fact, it’s an experience so addictive (yes, flow experience and cocaine both use the dopamine pathway) that we sometimes spend the entire first half of our lives seeking that experience which we call a career. Continue reading

Closing the loop of communication

One of the best advices a mentor gave me during school was to close communication loops as quickly as I can.  In a world when constant information flow can occur on cell phones and a variety of social media, even a one-day wait for an email reply can seem archaic.

This idea is not new, though.  A basic recommendation written in Getting Things Done by David Allen is triaging your email inbox – if you can answer an email in two minutes or less, then go ahead and do it; if not, leave in your inbox.  He also recommends cleaning out your inbox daily (using the Archive feature in Gmail, for example).

The need to close the communication loop is formally required in many organizations such as the military and in medicine.  For example, critical medical findings on x-ray cannot just be communicated to the doctor or nurse; they must be accompanied by an acknowledgment, which typically involves a read-back.

In online communication by email, texting, or social media, there are three major categories of responses in practice: (1) reply to resolve the request, (2) contacting someone else to gather information before resolving the request, or (3) diverting the request to someone else who will resolve it.

What is sometimes forgotten is that we own the communication even after we did the right thing by gathering additional information or forwarding the original email to someone else – categories (2) or (3).  In other words, the original sender is unaware of the actions taken and is still waiting for our reply.  In the end, an additional 10 seconds of our time taken to close the loop with the original sender by a quick “I will forward this email to the John” (or by simply cc’ing the sender in our actions) can significantly increase our rapport with them.