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Feb 19, 2018

Must Innovators be asked hard questions?

Consider a typical start-up cycle: The idea first is germinated, bounced by many people. Then people create start-up, produce some sort of a pilot, and must defend their idea over and over again in front of a panel of potential angel investors, or their own family members willing to pitch some money. Then they face the hardest test of all by entering the market place, and getting their first buying customers. And then they need to convince real investors to pour money into expansion. A whole set of business incubators and accelerators helps people to get through these hurdles. If a business fails, it fails quickly, and start-uppers move on to the next project.

Consider how innovation is done in Academia: a small group of faculty typically sit in a few meetings and brainstorm a list of courses for their new programs. Sometimes they do a little looking around for similar programs. Then a number of curriculum committees will ask a few questions, and approve the new program. Sometimes, a university Board will get involved, but usually very superficially. Voila, a new program is born! Once it is born, it will go on for a long time, despite declining enrollments. While birth is easy, death is slow and protracted.

The difference in the latter case is that no one is structurally encouraged to ask tough questions. An idea that sounds good will usually get supported. It is not just academic programs, but various managerial innovations, restructurings, and platforms – their birth is too easy, their death is too hard. Almost no one ever asks for hard proof, for evidence that something is worth doing.

It is so easy to be critical of Academia, but it is not so simple. The danger is, once you start asking the very hard questions, you eliminate any development, any innovation. Start-upers are often motivated by the slim chance of striking it very rich or very famous, or both. This why the startup world can generate the tremendous energy and risk tolerance. In our world, the outsize rewards are very unlikely, and people do things for different reasons. The different institutional arrangements make for a very different culture of innovation. And one has to admit, American universities are fairly innovative, despite the lack of powerful incentives to innovate. Perhaps we need to learn how our own gears work and oil them, rather than importing a whole set of alien mechanisms?

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