The innovator as anti-hero

A few weeks ago, I reflected on the lesson of first world war generalship that it may be safer to fail with near certainty in the traditional manner than to run even a small risk of failure in a novel manner:  the former is understood, the latter is punished.

John Kay’s most recent column for the FT makes a closely related point:

In politics, business and finance, as on the seas, the hero is the person who tackles a problem, rather than the person whose actions prevent the problem arising. The statesmen we need are those who avert wars and prevent depressions, but such individuals gain little credit.

In other words, it can  be better to let the problem materialise so that you can be seen to be dealing with it heroically and against the odds than to take steps which reduce the risk of the problem ever occurring in the first place.  If the problem does not, in fact, materialise it is understandably hard to get credit for the counter-factual, because the problem avoided may well be indistinguishable from the problem which never was.

Scene:  a railway carriage in deepest Surrey:

“Why are you throwing that powder out of the window?”

“To keep the elephants away”

“But there are no elephants!”

“I know.  It’s working perfectly”.