Innovators Require An Exception-Oriented Mindset

David Shaywitz

Living in innovative domains like biomedical research requires an appreciation for the exceptional, the outlier. You might even argue that the goal of innovators – at least those who hope to see their ideas gain acceptance, or their inventions adopted – is to institutionalize the exceptional and make it routine. 

In the Perez model of technology adoption, this is the basic difference between the “Installation Phase,” and the “Deployment Phase.” In the Installation Phase, the world tries to make sense of a new technology, and considers many possible expressions of it (rejecting most). In the Deployment Phase, the technology is widely adopted, becoming domesticated and routine. 

Surviving and thriving in an innovation-oriented realm requires a distinctive mindset: the persistence and patience to search constantly for the exception..

At one level, of course, we understand the challenge: we know that most drug candidates don’t reach the market, that most startups fail, that most creative endeavors – music, literature, film – never leave an imprint on large numbers of people. 

It’s also why many rational people prefer the comfort of more predictable domains, where consistency is both expected and prized.   

The difference between exception-driven domains, ruled by the power law, and more predictable domains, governed by gaussian distributions, was also a central theme of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan – see here. Taleb termed these two worlds “Extremistan” and “Mediocristan.”

For those opting for innovation, for Extremistan, it’s easy to get discouraged and distracted by the median – especially after you’ve been pitched by the umpteenth unmoored AI startup or the latest vendor overpromising comprehensive distributed clinical trial capabilities, or forced yourself to remain awake through yet another dismal corporate visioning activity or ideation session. 

Yet it’s critical to recall, as Stephen J. Gould famously explained, “the median isn’t the message.”  Gould was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, associated with a median survival time of eight months.  While initially “stunned,” and “not, of course, overjoyed,” he was nevertheless able to recognize the possibility and promise of life on the far extreme of the distribution. Thanks to a deliberately positive attitude, exquisite medical care, and a lot of luck (not necessarily in that order), he lived another 20 years.

Colleagues who have thrived in innovative spaces seem to share Gould’s ability to locate the exception.  Dr. Amy Abernethy, now at Verily, has long impressed me with her ability to identify the most hopeful outliers – ideas, people, organizations – however rare they might be. 

The mindset is not to be confused with toxic positivity, which asserts that everything is just great; Abernethy, from what I can tell, has little trouble recognizing abundant mediocrity – but it doesn’t prevent her from also identifying and cultivating hints of unusual brilliance, wherever she might find it.

Similarly, I’ve always found myself involuntary drawn to the exceptional, and the most interesting. In organizations where most people are highly competent but just seeking to get their jobs done, I’ve consistently found the outliers, those with a slightly different perspective, and a more ambitious personal mission. The experience of connecting with an exceptional, perhaps overlooked innovator can turn a day of tedious, predictable meetings into one of discovery and promise.

Without question, in innovative spaces, it’s easy to get disillusioned. The hype is constant, and most innovation doesn’t pan out. 

Nevertheless, to paraphrase Miracle Max from The Princess Bride (a movie that, as my friend and fellow Timmerman Report contributor Lisa Suennen has pointed out, may be the fount of all entrepreneurial wisdom), “there’s a big difference between ‘mostly crap’ and ‘all crap.’ ‘Mostly crap’ is slightly promising.” 

And it’s this promise, however slight and elusive, that we need to celebrate, nurture, and relentlessly pursue. 

As you wish.

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