The Color Purple

Innovation Risk

TakeRisksNo one would dispute that the pace of innovation has accelerated. According to “Welcome to the Failure Age!,” the first tools developed by humans, axes and hoes for instance, didn’t change for millennia; during the Middle Ages the innovation cycle was shortened to a century; in the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries, change took hold in a generation. These days the lifecycle of an innovation can often be measured in months.

The shortening of the cycle of change contains a direct correlation between risk tolerance, in the form to taking risks to reap rewards, acceptance of failure and the speed of innovation. Back when humanity was just getting going, making a change in what was known to work could be deadly. Yes, our ancestor who designed the first ax that proved effective in hunting had a good thing going, but we’ll never know about the ancestor whose ax was a failure because he was probably eaten by the predator he was trying to kill. Failure back then at the dawn of humankind could be deadly. It really was a better idea to stick with the status quo.

Needless to say, things have changed, especially the idea of success lurking in the shadow of failure as the byproduct of an innovation gone wrong. And that brings me to the color purple. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, all fabric dyes were natural and purple, and made from a shellfish excretion. The dye was so expensive that only royalty could afford it, until 18-year-old English chemist William Perkin tried to make a synthetic form of quinine, a substance that was used to fight malaria. His experiment to make quinine failed, but in the process he discovered that he could make a remarkable purple substance from coal tar that that could be used as fabric dye and the result was purple for the people. It was the disruptive innovation of its day; those who labored to make natural dyes from bugs and plants lost market share and went out of business—over the course of a generation, though.

The crack in this example is that failure had shifted from being a death sentence, to something where the potential reward was worth the risk. Taking risks isn’t instinctive for us because for more than 250,000 years humans pretty much had to stick to what they knew worked or face extinction. It’s only during the past 150 years or so that we have been doing our best to make the mental adjustment that risk may be worth the reward, which is not long in a historical context. It’s why we have to be conscious of the connection between risk and reward and exercise our risk acceptance muscles. Part of our evolution is that the role of risk has shifted.

Take Away: The role of risk in the history of humans has shifted from avoidance at all costs to acceptance when weighing the rewards.

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