What I learned from Bill Gates

May 18, 2014

I have the great privilege in my job as president of the World Bank Group of speaking to some of the most creative political and business leaders around the world. One of the consistent themes across all of these conversations is the recognition that we must accelerate innovation to end extreme poverty and to grow economies in a way that is shared by all. What we lack is clear consensus around the best ways to foster and scale new ideas.

Recently, I had the opportunity to have a long discussion with Bill Gates, and our conversation naturally turned to what inspires innovation. Bill and his wife Melinda launched their foundation in 1994, and since that time, they have transformed the world’s development aspirations in health, education and poverty reduction.

I was one of the lucky beneficiaries of the Gates’ generosity. In 2000, their foundation made a $44.7 million grant to Partners In Health, which I co-founded. At a time when most of the global health world was in denial about multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, the Gates made the largest single tuberculosis-related foundation gift in history in order to find ways to treat this disease in developing countries. This pattern of visionary, innovative philanthropy has been repeated again and again in their efforts to tackle some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

Over dinner in Washington, D.C., Bill talked about how he and Melinda built this innovative institutional culture, across business and philanthropy. He made three key points:

Innovation comes from collaboration. Great ideas, he said, don’t appear in isolation. Recent research suggests that creativity is less an attribute of individuals than an emergent property that bubbles up within communities of people solving problems together. So the challenge for an organization is building a culture that encourages new ideas while providing a platform to reinforce collaboration.

As Steven Johnson noted in “Where Good Ideas Come From,” we tend to incorrectly picture innovation as “eureka moments,” when exceptional individuals, plunged in solitary thought, experience a sudden flash of insight.

We talked about how the most powerful innovations arise often within huge institutions, if slowly. It often happens after intensive exchange and collaboration and mostly because of the intersection of individuals with deep experience and expertise that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. This underscores Bill’s personal commitment to understanding an issue in great depth.

When the foundation started looking into global health more than a decade ago, he immediately immersed himself in the field’s technical aspects. I remember vividly a conversation with Bill in 2006 about the development of new drugs for the treatment of HIV. His encyclopedic knowledge of the existing molecules, their mode of action, and stage of development in the industry was dazzling and made me feel enormously grateful that he had taken the time to closely study the issue.

It was clear to me back then, and even more so now, that his ability to grasp even the smallest details had encouraged his teams to do the same, and that, in turn, had created a culture that inspired innovation.

The importance of grit. Bill is nothing if not dogged. He exudes grit and is convinced that determination, discipline and persistence are the most important determinants of the most successful people he has known.

Our conversation turned to whether parents, teachers and institutions (educational, military, etc.) can nurture these qualities in young people. The South Korean educational system in which students, starting at an increasingly young age, go to school from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., produces students that do very well in international tests. Some observers have pointed out that this level of rigor may be contributing to the overall willpower and grit of the population. On the flip side, this has generated controversy about the collateral damage that this system is having on the mental health of young Koreans. We agreed that this is an area in which evidence is only now beginning to emerge.

We do know from research done by Roy Baumeister that while it is very difficult to reliably and sustainably increase measured IQ in populations, “willpower” can be built, almost like a muscle. Can countries, companies, educational institutions and even families, foster innovation by helping young people (and old people!) become more disciplined and gritty?

Bringing innovations to scale. As Bill has demonstrated in both his business and his philanthropy, generating great ideas is only the first step. Putting great ideas into action and delivering consistent results is both more important and more difficult. For example, translating ideas for improving global health into improved outcomes requires rigorous measurement, adaptation to local contexts, and especially a plan for reaching scale.

Bill’s message was that we shouldn’t sit and wait for some revolutionary ideas to pop into our heads. Innovative ideas are all around us: in the poorest countries, in the private sector, in international organizations, governments, academic institutions and civil society groups.

If we collaborate, dig into the details and persist, and focus on scale, we may very well find the great innovations that will lead to healthier, more equitable and more productive societies.

Jim Yong Kim is president of the Washington-based World Bank Group. This commentary is adapted from a piece he posted on LinkedIn.

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