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.