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Overcoming Failures of Imagination

This weekend’s Global Health and Innovation Conference sponsored by Unite For Sight brought 2200 participants together from the fields of international development, public health, social entrepreneurship, medicine, microfinance and human rights, just to name a few. Speakers included Jeff Sachs, Seth Godin, Jacqueline Novogratz.

Much of the discussion centered on building sustainability and getting ideas that work to scale. As is often the case at such gatherings there was a focus on sharing best practices, measuring impact, and obtaining the necessary resources for success.

I took my opportunity to speak on Saturday morning to challenge the attendees to also look inward. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the greatest cause of failure is usually not a failure of finances or strategy or execution, but rather failure of imagination.

Many of the most successful social entrepreneurs today represent triumphs of imagination more than anything else:

 Wendy Kopp’s idea that college graduates could be trained in a brief time and placed into some of the nation’s toughest schools was a triumph of imagination that led to Teach For America.

 Victoria Hale’s belief that there could be a nonprofit pharmaceutical when none had ever existed, was a triumph of imagination led to drug and vaccine development for neglected diseases through the Institute for One World Health.

 Steve Hoffman’s embrace of a malaria vaccine candidate that others had rejected as too difficult was a triumph of imagination that led to the creation of his biotech company Sanaria, in which the Gates Foundation invested nearly $30 million to produce what may be the world’s most effective malaria vaccine.

Imagination is not the same as creativity. It is more than an effort to improve on how things have been done in the past. Rather it is an effort to envision what has never before been done. It is an openness to not just the reasonable ideas but the unreasonable.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”

There is much to be learned from the imaginations of unreasonable men and women.

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