I failed: some reflections on the pitfalls of innovation

Recently I blogged about my new barefoot running shoes. I hailed them as a disruptive innovation, successfully applied with promising early results.

Four months later it is a beautiful winter’s day, perhaps with a touch of spring in the air. I am gazing out the window as I sip my coffee, noting the perfect running conditions. But I am feeling melancholy. Because one month today I am signed up to do a half marathon that I hoped would deliver my first sub 1 hr 30 time: an aspiration that now seems highly unlikely.

My left knee is screwed. It taunts me by giving me three, four, five wonderfully pain free days. Then, just when I feel it can take some pavement pounding, it flames up and a simple walk to the tube station becomes an ordeal.

I feel foolish because not only did I excitedly blog about my new shoes, I became a vocal advocate for this exciting innovation, evangelically spreading the love of barefoot running to those around me. Behaving rather smugly because I had imported this cool Californian trend to London. Observing non-barefoot runners with a sense of pity. Did they not realize what they were missing?

Reflecting on the interplay between innovation and failure I considered some of the pitfalls of innovation that plague global development:

  • Declaring success with limited evidence and no control of variables: I hailed my new shoes as transformative after shaving a few minutes off race times shortly after introducing them. I did not wait to collect more evidence to demonstrate success. I failed to consider what else might have been responsible (more commitment to running in that three month period; races with perfect conditions; running with my brother increased my competitiveness – sibling rivalry drives success for the Milibands, why not for me?).
  • Believing my own hype: My new shoes became a talking point. The more people were interested in this disruptive innovation the more vocal I became. In global development it is often the innovations that shout the loudest that receive the most acclaim.
  • Ignoring the warning signs: I wanted this innovation to work. So I forged ahead despite the nagging pain. My head in the sand strategy proved ineffective and the pain worsened. I would have done better by tackling the problem as soon as it emerged, iterating and experimenting until I got it right.
  • Style over substance: I suspect that my fashionista friends would dispute the style claim. The point is that I felt pretty cool in the barefoot shoes. And how often in development have we seen sophisticated, cool ideas hailed as the panacea to poverty only to discover that they are not as effective as they seemed?

Of course I do not know whether this injury is directly attributable to barefoot running. And I should be clear that the setback does not mean that I am abandoning my innovation. I plan to course-correct and persevere. Just with a little less hype and a little less evangelism.

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One thought on “I failed: some reflections on the pitfalls of innovation

  1. Pingback: What I talk about when I talk about running | Innovation and the F Word

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