The Brick Walls

Randy Pausch said in his last lecture that the brick walls were there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. I wonder, though, if we really need so many brick walls…

I recently finished a MOOC on Leading Strategic Innovation, which addressed the many barriers to innovation – from individual constraints to group constraints, those of organizations and industries, even societal constraints, not to mention limitations of current technology. I thought about what we do every day in academic medicine and in driving cancer research…. Without a doubt, there are many brick walls that inhibit our ability to move the field forward. True, some are individual constraints –simply idea generation is often difficult enough. Then there are the technological constraints– whether the glitches in the lab when experiments are not optimized or computational analytics that never seem to be fast enough. Regulatory barriers that serve to ensure our science is sound and our patients are protected, while tremendously important, often slow the progression of research. And, of course, there are fiscal challenges as well, with limited budgets to support innovative ideas. While many of these are constraints over which we, as individuals, have little control, I would put to you that we impose upon ourselves additional constraints – we build brick walls – and we all know how the friction associated with ineffective group process, organizational tyranny or bureaucracy, impede our progress.

I totally understand the need for perseverance and tenacity, and the opportunity to show how badly you want something is certainly admirable…but do we really need so many brick walls? What if we had more opportunities to collaborate and group process was defined more by constructive think tanks than destructive rumor mills? What if leadership empowered people to innovate and achieve, rather than constraining personal growth? What if procedure and protocol was designed to facilitate progress rather than be another impediment to innovation? The truth is we need people (whether mentors, collaborators or leaders) to help us break down those brick walls, rather than building more. It strikes me that too many people suffer personal and professional burnout by expending energy trying to break down brick walls…. Perhaps that’s the idea – weed out those who don’t want it badly enough? I would put to you that by doing so, however, some of the best innovations lie untapped due to sheer exasperation. While I will concede that many brick walls serve a purpose, it may behoove us to look at the walls we have and the walls we build and ask ourselves how we can do better.


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