Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
-Neale Donald Walsch
Being in your comfort zone is overrated. To convince yourself of this fact, simply interview anyone who has achieved something worthwhile, and you will find that going outside of the comfort zone was an indispensable step in their achievement.
Universities are engines of innovation, but most agree that the rate at which innovation emerges from universities in the form of new products and services is much lower than it could be. What is limiting this rate?
To answer this, we need to realize is that universities are a refuge of sorts – a place that is designed to enable brilliant minds to engage in discovery unfettered by the immediate concerns of ROI.
Universities are vital to the process of innovation and advancement: they educate students who bring new ways of thinking to old problems, and they make new discoveries that no one else would make because no one else has the opportunity to delve so deeply.
In creating this type of refuge, we also create a comfort zone. Because governmental support for science and technology is designed to support long-term, high-risk work regardless of immediate return, ROI is not a factor in getting government funding. University researchers become successful at pitching research ideas without serious reference to commercial outcome. Peer review – which is critical for the success of science – further reinforces this tendency.
University researchers are rewarded for thinking in this very specific way, and this creates the comfort zone. As it dawns on a researcher that they may need to work with a company or an entrepreneur to see their discoveries become products or services that can benefit society, they may find themselves a victim of their own past success. Many researchers reflexively approach companies as if they are yet another type of funding agency, but since companies are not in the grant-making business, a partnership fails to materialize.
This basic failure to communicate means valuable commercial opportunities are often not recognized, or when they are, the resulting partnership does not go well. Communication failure is the rate-limiting step in commercializing university innovations. Communication failures lead to loss of trust. Without trust, our partnerships fail.
The communication gap between scientists and non-scientists is well-recognized. Organizations such as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science work “to train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline.” If scientists fail to communicate to non-scientists, there can be no impact of new ideas and discoveries on how the rest of the world operates.
With the decrease in research funding from government sources – arguably due, in part, to this communication gap – researchers are experiencing more pressure to move outside of their comfort zone and work with partners in commerce. Some will be successful, others will not.
Universities and their funding models have inadvertently created this ROI-free comfort zone for researchers. It is arguably the university’s responsibility to give researchers the tools and training to bridge the resulting communication gap. Researchers need to be amenable to pushing the envelope as well, and at the very least, seek out guidance about how to pitch to companies and entrepreneurs.
Once you recognize that you are in a comfort zone, it’s easy to know what to do next – it’s the thing you know you should do, but that inspires your greatest degree of procrastination. The best day to put that very thing on your to-do list is today.