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Would you rather have an Optimizer or an Innovator?

Mother macaque with youngInnovation. Buzzword for our times. People who innovate are seen as rainmakers. An “Innovator” is hailed as an inspiring leader, while an “optimizer” is popularly seen as someone who just does the mundane work of running the system. Innovators are seen as creative, bold, risk-takers, visionaries, strategically-minded, and a list of other accolades. Optimizers are relegated to the back room. Oh, we all know they’re important, to be sure, but would any of you put the title Optimizer on your business card?

You know what I think about bandwagons. They have a tendency to become meatwagons. Piled high with the bodies of those who jumped on them. Having a blinding flash of the obvious, for example, touting “getting the right people on the bus” as a strategic innovation is absolute nonsense. Recruiting and people development processes are supposed to take care of that, it’s their raison d’etre! Making a financial product a little more appealing to a potential buyer by tweaking certain conditions is not innovation, it’s optimization and it ought to be an ongoing thing.

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In line with “innovation”, have you heard of this other illustration that talks about how the difference between hot water and boiling water is just one degree, and yet boiling water produces steam which can be used to drive great engines, something which hot water alone is not able to do? I get irritated by that illustration, actually, because it makes people ignore two important factors. First, that as one gets closer to boiling point, the amount of energy required is much, much more than when you had put the water to boil at the start. This is known as the latent heat of vapourization. Secondly, to get water from a solid state (ice) to steam, one needs to go from 0°C to 100°C, assuming ambient pressure is the same. From when the ice melts to boiling point, in spite of all the energy poured into the system, nothing seems to happen! True, we get to see a little steam and perhaps a few bubbles now and then, but otherwise, nothing seems to be happening! Then, when the water boils, we get lots of steam, bubbling water and of course we are able to harness that steam for energy if that was the intention. In glorifying the boiling point of innovation, we ignore the vast amounts of optimization that have gone in to make boiling innovation possible. From 0°C to 100°C, a huge amount of energy has already gone into the system in order to make the water boil. Get some perspective!

So, what are you going to do now? Innovate? Go ahead, just make sure you’re well-optimized on a consistent basis, and you’ll have some genuine innovations I’m sure I’d like to see as well! In the meantime, treat the Optimizer with respect, and recognize that he has a lot to do with what the Innovator comes up with!

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