29 Jul Turning a Loss into a Positive

[Also published in Huffington Post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katherine-warman-kern/turning-a-loss-into-a-pos_b_666495.html]

It takes a purpose with high expectations  to motivate the  “culture of we”  necessary for real innovation.

And this is the first “riff” I’ll improvise on from John Kao’s book, Innovation Nation, How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why it Matters, and What We Can Do to Get it Back.

“My own definition of innovation is both integrative and aspirational.”

A purpose which aims to vindicate a loss and maintain the status quo will not motivate people to take action.   Probably because, intuitively, most people know that when there’s a loss it is futile to try to restore the status quo.

To motivate people to adopt a purpose that is bigger than “me”, it takes a more positive vision.

Some think (as evidenced by many politicians’ strategies) that threats which inspire fear will galvanize our polarized society to work together.  I suspect they have misinterpreted the factors effecting innovation in response to WWII and Sputnik.

When you consider the outcome of ramping up for WWII and going to the Moon, it reveals a much higher purpose – to excel, not to react out of fear.   The patents developed and exploited, the factories built to manufacture equipment and goods didn’t exist before the war and are still businesses today – some Fortune 50 companies.  I suspect no one has documented these stories.

It has been so long that our expectations have been so high that I think we forget what it feels like.  So here’s an example from a recent personal experience. . .

Friends of ours lost their son at the age of 30, in the prime of his life to Lymphoma.  Turns out, Lymphoma is the number 1 killer of men 18-34 because when it attacks during this phase of life it is just so virulent.

These friends have turned the loss of their son into a positive by starting a foundation that has raised about $7 Million to fund research that can quickly make a difference.  The idea was inspired by a conversation in the hospital cafeteria between the Mother and a medical researcher who told her that significantly more time is spent raising money by writing grants for research than actually doing research.  So when her son died, they decided to make a difference by leveraging their resources and connections to raise money to accelerate the research process and to focus on research that is difficult to raise money for.   (The NYT published an article in 2009 revealing how difficult it is to raise funding for truly innovative medical research – even by seasoned researchers – which I can’t find but will keep looking!)  Both of these purposes are gamechanging!

At the annual fundraiser for the foundation, the lead Doctor told us they have made so much progress in the last 6 years that if the son were to arrive at the hospital today for treatment, they would treat him completely differently.

And you can only imagine the ripple effect  now and in the future. There are so many people who have participated: people who donate money, the clinicians, patients who participate in studies,  caregivers, and those who benefit from the well-being of patients and their caregivers – children, employees, students, etc.  They have all benefitted in some way or another.

The implication is that a purpose that turns a loss into a positive sets expectations high enough to focus on something bigger than “me”.  That’s how a “culture of we” starts.  And real innovation is distinguished by the depth and breadth of the ripple effect beyond the original purpose.  This is what a “culture of we” feels like.

“Turning a loss into a positive” is the first example of  “Disrupting Ambiguity”, a theme I will continue to explore.