Reid Hoffman connects four themes for would-be innovators (and tomorrow's healthcare companies)

Reid Hoffman’s talk this week at Stanford (podcast and video available here) touched on several themes that collectively seem to comprise the Silicon Valley innovator ethos; most are relevant to healthcare and biopharma, and I agree with all his assertions except one.

(Hoffman, for those tuning in late, is a Silicon Valley superstar: he was a major part of PayPal, a co-founder of LinkedIn, and currently a partner at Greylock.)

Theme 1: Breakout success requires risk.  This is, of course, the defining credo of entrepreneurs, and initially may seem a bit obvious.  However, I’d argue that the most radical part of this statement is not the notion of taking risk, but rather the assumption that one aspires to achieve breakout success.

Many people go to the office each day, aspire to do their jobs well and earn a good living, and generally hope to get a measure of satisfaction from their work and their colleagues.  But the yearning for breakout success – whether this reflects colossal ambition, haughty arrogance, deep insecurity, or a desperate need for external validation – seems a trait that isn’t shared by everyone.  Arguably, a worthy goal of entrepreneurship programs is to awaken this drive in more people.  (For more about the entrepreneur meme, see here.)

Theme 2: Adaptation, resilience, iteration.  I’ve grouped these three essential traits together because they seem to be fundamentally related, and connect to the idea of a flexible mindset.

Entrepreneurs commit to a central paradox.  In order to get a new enterprise off the ground, you need a remarkable amount of chutzpah, a conviction that you are embarking on something worthy and important and likely to be successful; at the same time, you need to somehow also recognize that almost certainly, your initial ideas will be off, and will need continuous refinement.  You may also fail entirely.

Somehow, you need the ability to learn from all of your endeavors, and gain wisdom without sacrificing ambition and courage – an approach to experience that seems more the rule in the valley than the exception.

Hoffman also discussed the importance of optimizing ideas through a rapid succession of iterations– though I found it amusing that, as a consumer internet guy accustomed to instant feedback, he found a waiting period of several months uncomfortably long.  Presumably, he would find the timelines in pharma unbearable (an extended feedback loop that I’ve previously argued is a true barrier to innovation in the industry).

Theme 3: Manage your education, training, and career development with an entrepreneurial mindset.  Hoffman argued persuasively that life isn’t a linear track, and encouraged audience members to more aggressively manage their careers; for instance, he believes employees should view their current job as a “tour of duty” rather than a lifetime commitment, and should unapologetically consider a range of options after a substantive piece of work is accomplished.

He also expressed profound enthusiasm for the American education system, and in particular called out its relative lack of rigidity; there are clearly many importance life qualities that are not reflected by a given standardized test nor reducible to a single number, a lesson most entrepreneurs viscerally appreciate (even if some testing agencies do not).  (Further discussion of our obsession with dubious metrics available here.)

Hoffman, like several previous STVP speakers, also highlighted the importance of recognizing what you don’t do well: for instance, Warren Packard’s experience at Baxter working alongside noted product innovator Dean Kamen helped him realize that he didn’t have Kamen’s skills, and encouraged him to shift his focus to an area where he felt he could be world-class.  Hoffman describes a remarkably similar experience with coding.  Fortunately for them, both Hoffman and Packard were not only able to recognize their own limitations but were also able to find other areas of strength that they could develop and effectively leverage.

Theme 4: If it’s not 10x, don’t bother.  This message – seek profound change not incremental improvement — is yet another common expression among successful entrepreneurs, and it’s a sentiment with which I resonate deeply, yet I worry it may be somewhat misleading.

What I love about this aspiration is the ambition, the goal of wanting to change the world, and make a dent in the universe.  I also agree that you can spend as much energy doing trivial or incremental tasks as doing work that’s truly revolutionary and impactful.

My disagreement is with how we get there.  I’m not sure it’s always possible to sort the world into 1x and 10x opportunities, and there’s an extensive literature on the incremental nature of profound innovations (a topic I’ve addressed here and here).

Most new ideas – even the ones Silicon Valley tends to fetishize endlessly – didn’t emerge either fully-formed or obviously brilliant; eBay is one of the few exceptions that come to mind.  In many more cases, a great idea evolved progressively, often through a succession of more modest innovations or improvements, so that while the final product may be overtly better, its evolution was more gradual than punctuated.

Consequently, though I especially resonated with Hoffman’s critique of incremental innovation, and his distaste for slight improvements, I also suspect these iterations ultimately may be more valuable than his talk might suggest.  Perhaps, progress requires both the ability to opportunistically deliver incremental improvements as well as the capacity to retain the big picture view, and never losing sight of the grander ambition.

Lessons for healthcare companies?

Can healthcare companies learn from Hoffman’s ideas?  You have to hope so.  Clearly, it is an industry in need of breakout ideas, where adaptation to a rapidly-changing environment is essential, and where profoundly improved products could fundamentally reshape the human condition.

As for the human capital – I suspect it would have no trouble identifying and migrating to the most exciting and innovative companies in the healthcare space, the way aspiring medical scientists were drawn to Genentech 20 years ago, or the way top developers descended upon Google five years ago, and flock to Facebook plus a range of small start-ups today.

Who will be the innovative healthcare companies of tomorrow?  Follow the talent.

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