An Ideas Boom is a Good Start, But What We Really Need is an Impact Boom

Making Ideas Real

Who discovered penicillin?

Most people know the story of Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery in his lab. But here’s the tougher question: who turned penicillin into a life-saving antibiotic?

The answer to that is: a team led by Howard Florey.

The fact that many more people know about Fleming than Florey is a big problem.

Fleming’s feat took knowledge, skill, and preparedness. But Florey’s took all of that, a big team, plus five years of incredibly focused hard work. The biochemist Ernst Chain was a key team member (and shared the Nobel Prize with Florey and Fleming), and many others. As with most innovation, it was a collective effort. The team had to figure out how penicillin worked, then if it still worked in people, then how to manufacture it, then how to do so at scale. Every single one of those hurdles was challenging.

This is a common innovation mistake: we glorify ideas, while dismissing all the other work as “just execution.”

To innovate, we need three things: a great new idea, that we’ve made real, which creates value for people.

Making Ideas Real

Fleming had the idea, Florey’s team made it real and created value for people.

Making ideas real is unglamourous, as the case of penicillin shows. But even after doing all that work, we’re in trouble if it doesn’t create value for people.

There’s no one more frustrated than someone that has a great idea, and has made it real, but can’t get anyone interested in it. That’s why it’s so important to create value. It’s value creation that leads to impact, and impact is what we really want. Lean startup is the best tool I’ve found to figure out how to best achieve impact.

Ideas are important. But if we want to create change, we don’t just need an ideas boom – we need an impact boom.

Note 1: Here’s a draft paper with my colleague Robert Faff that discusses a tool we’ve made to help academic researchers focus on impace.

Note 2: if you’re a researcher at an Australian University, CSIRO is running a program designed to help with this. I’m facilitating the Brisbane stream.

Note 3: here’s my TEDxUQ talk on this:

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “An Ideas Boom is a Good Start, But What We Really Need is an Impact Boom

  1. Great post Tim!

    There are a few other important points to consider. The first is that what Fleming discovered could never have cured anyone. You couldn’t turn it into a powder, store it or even make enough to do anyone any good. It was just “mold juice” that could kill bacteria in a petri dish.

    The second is that, technically, what Fleming discovered has never cured anyone. The actual strain that became the drug penicillin was discovered 13 years later at another lab in Illinois, in 1941, when Florey and Heatley travelled to the US to do further work on making penicillin into a viable cure.

    The third is that Fleming could have never turned penicillin into a viable cure. To do that, a variety of skills were needed, including a qualified biochemist (Ernst Chain), someone to build a specialized fermentation apparatus (Heatley) and then technicians, manufacturing experts, etc.

    So having an idea is not enough and even a “lean startup” type of approach is not enough, you also need to identify and access the skills needed to solve the problem.

    – Greg

    • Thanks Greg! I need to read that book…

      Identifying and accessing skills is definitely part of lean startup if you do it right. That’s something that we focus on in the science-based programs that I’m running. In nearly every project, we run into things that the core team needs to get done, but they lack the capabilities needed. So it’s definitely a good point.