There's more than one path to progress

Mon, 21 Jan 2013

Humans learn from experience, from what has worked well and what has failed.  Generally that's a good approach, but sometimes we take it too far, thinking that we should stick to the paths that have worked in the past.  In particular, we can get addicted to small, reliable steps of progress, rather than allowing the chance of riskier, but ultimately far more significant breakthroughs.

I heard an excellent radio programme by popular economist Tim Harford yesterday, with a somewhat catchier title than this blog post: Hotpants vs the knockout mouse.  

The programme started with the case for incremental improvements.  And yes, these can add a lot of value, for example, the British cyclists in the velodrome at the 2012 Olympics owe a lot of their success to a number of incremental improvements by sports scientist Matt Parker (including warmed shorts, hence the hotpants of the title).  In just about any field, there are opportunities to predictably succeed in improving the current state.  There's nothing wrong with that.

Except, when it is all we do.  Some progress, in fact some of the most significant breakthroughs, can't be achieved by small, incremental steps - they need a leap of faith, which probably won't even be repaid.

Clearly, there have been big breakthroughs in the past, and the programme tells the story of Mario Capecchi, who pioneered gene therapy in mice (which is where the breakthrough mouse comes from).

But, and this was the biggest thing I took away from the programme, much of how we measure success these days can prevent people taking the risks necessary to achieve the huge advancements.  Expecting regular success, benchmarking people against competition, too frequent warning against failure and encouraging people to follow common paths of success: these result in only the craziest or most confident being willing to take the big risks.  And we are all poorer for it.

The full programme can be found on BBC IPlayer or on iTunes.