Why the rewards for Ambitious Problem Solving Are About to Get Bigger

A decade ago, Microsoft was considered a dinosaur. It had missed the shift to mobile, was out of step with consumer tastes, and seemed too big and slow to adapt to a digital world that was moving at hyperspeed. Yet today the company is thriving again, largely driven by its growing cloud business.

This is not a new effort. In fact, it began in the early 2000s, but was little noticed until recently. In much the same way, IBM’s Watson project, which is helping the venerable company overcome the disruption of its traditional business, began in 2005. Google has created its own moonshot factory, to pursue game-changing technologies that may take years to pay off.

In recent years, we’ve come to associate the practice of innovation with speed and agility, but accomplishments that truly move the needle can’t be achieved quickly or through mere iteration. We need to set our sights higher.

Why We Need to Think Bigger

One reason for the emphasis on agility and iteration in recent decades is that technology has been fairly stable. Every new generation of computer chips has offered more power and capability but works exactly like earlier generations. In much the same way, advancements in lithium-ion batteries meant that our devices could shrink, but little else had to change. Today, though, those comfortable old paradigms are running out of steam. Moore’s law will soon end, and lithium-ion batteries will approach theoretical limits in five to 10 years. These will be replaced with technologies that aren’t nearly as well understood. Other nascent fields, like genomics, nanotechnology, and robotics, require highly skilled specialists to advance them.

In the coming years we are likely to see a new era of innovation that will look more like the 1950s and 1960s (which were about solving fundamental problems, like space flight and the development of mainframe computers) than it will the 1990s or 2000s (which were more about improving on earlier technology to create applications). In the next few decades, I predict, much of innovation’s value will shift away from applications and back to fundamental problems. That will require greater focus on sustaining efforts to solve grand challenges.

Defining a Grand Challenge

A grand challenge can take many forms. IBM is one company that has a long history of pursuing grand challenges, such as the Deep Blue project, which defeated former world champion Garry Kasparov at chess, and the Blue Gene project, which created a new class of “massively parallel” supercomputers. The most recent was the Grand Challenge for Jeopardy!, which led to the development of its current Watson business.

“A successful grand challenge is one that people, even experts in the field, regard as an epiphany and changes assumptions about what’s possible,” Bernard Meyerson, IBM’s chief innovation officer, told me. “The commercial value comes in applying those new possibilities to business problems.”

Others might define it differently. For example, take Talia Milgrom-Elcott, executive director of 100Kin10, a nonprofit that is spearheading the effort to train 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years. She told me, “For us in the social sphere, a grand challenge is a collective effort to get at root causes. We’re not only looking for a solution to a problem, but a permanent impact on everyday reality.”

She says they find these root causes through a series of questions: “Keep asking why, and you start to see connections that lead to root causes that have enormous leverage, and that’s where you need to focus your efforts.”

Ron DePinho, who as president of MD Anderson Cancer Center launched its Moon Shots program, sees grand challenges “as grand opportunities to deliver a population-level impact that requires the discovery and application of new knowledge, and therefore a cross-sector, multidisciplinary effort.”

Lots of Upside, Limited Downside

Whatever form a grand challenge takes, it is an effort to pull an organization out of a purely operational mode and create something truly new. That is the both the promise and the peril of any truly ambitious effort, because critics often object to diverting resources from more-pressing needs. Skeptics worry that scientists will spend a lot of time developing solutions that have no definable time horizon or specific application in mind.

However, DePinho points out that, over the long haul, grand challenges tend to make good economic sense. “We actually learned that there tends to be so much spinout from a major collective effort that the end result tends to be an increase of effective resources,” he says, because it propels many other efforts forward.

He points to The Cancer Genome Atlas, which sequenced over 10,000 tumor genomes across 33 types of cancer, as an example. As a first-of-its-kind effort, it created a new “periodic table” for cancer research and shifted the field in new directions. It also helped give rise to a similar effort, the Materials Genome Initiative, which hopes to make a comparable impact in manufacturing.

For established organizations, grand challenges can also represent managed risk. IBM’s Meyerson points out that projects like Deep Blue, Blue Gene, and Watson differ significantly from his company’s development of the 360 mainframe back in the 1960s, which cost $5 billion (about $40 billion in today’s dollars) and could have meant the end of IBM if it failed.

“Grand challenges are not about the amount of money you throw at the problem,” he says. “To run a successful grand challenge program, failure should not be a material risk to the company, but success will have a monumental impact. That’s what makes grand challenges an asymmetric opportunity.”

Meyerson also points out that today’s technology makes the pursuit of ambitious projects far more accessible to smaller organizations: “In the current environment of cloud computing, software as a service, and open data, the opportunities for organizations of any size to pursue grand challenges with minimal capital expenditures is unprecedented.”

No matter what form innovation takes — short, agile sprints or long-term, grand-challenge investments — innovation is fundamentally about solving problems. And the bigger the problems you choose to tackle, the larger the potential payoff. Pursuing a grand challenge won’t improve your results next quarter, but it might just take your enterprise to a whole new level.

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