Do you find it harder to create an impact than to do quality work?
We do find creative ways to solve difficult problems at work. Work-related difficult problems that I am thinking about could be scientific, research oriented, business/stakeholder driven, and customer-centric. We are all well trained to be able to perform high-quality work by adequately using our knowledge, skills, and expertise. However, are we are well trained to do impactful work? Or are these survival street-smart skills that we need to pick on our own? In either case, the point of this article is that some of us do wonder if the work we do is truly impactful. When we see the impact of our work, we would be profoundly satisfied, and it could bring meaning and purpose to what we do.
There are two aspects of this issue of quality versus impact. On one hand we may work on providing ingenious solutions using stylized models in supply chain, computer networks, and transportation. However, it is unclear how much impact the work has outside of the community of researchers that care about the problem. There is no doubt the work is of high quality, but what about impact? On the other hand, some research is set far into the future that their impact is not tangible in the present circumstances, take for example the now famous mRNA technology for COVID vaccines where the impact was questioned for a very long time. There are numerous such pieces of work that are either too abstract or too out in the future.
At the other end of the spectrum of quality versus impact are projects that are trendy. Many-a-times the quality is questionable, especially when speed is given higher priority than accuracy. This is frustrating for those of us that give importance to quality and rigor. This quality versus impact aspect is not just in scientific endeavors. Many artists feel that their best work is not the one that is most popular. Also, movies that gross significant revenue are not necessarily award-winning. In other words, what appeals to the masses is not necessarily what appeals to the experts. Whether it is movies, music, or TV shows, one can see this dichotomy between quality and impact.
Of course, there are numerous brilliant pieces of work like the Google search engine that are both of high quality as well as of tremendous impact. Any organization would strive for that. However, with things going viral on social media, some of us have started to be more concerned about mass appeal. Adam Grant very recently posted differentiating popularity and impact: “Popularity is how many likes you collect. Impact is how many lives you enrich”. In case of businesses, lack of this clarity could result in somewhat short-sighted decisions. The danger is that the popularity may not last and the proverbial bubble could burst. Hence it is crucial to develop a long-term vision and focus on quality so that quick fixes are avoided.
Not only in industry but also at universities we could easily get short-sighted. For example, instead of teaching difficult concepts and innovating in the classroom we focus on being entertaining. In the short term it improves our evaluations but do the students truly learn anything? Another aspect that is somewhat frustrating at the universities is the use of popularity measures like H-index and impact factors. Excellence is difficult to measure and these proxies are often used instead. It is not uncommon to see journals that are difficult to publish in and have high quality articles end up having low impact factors. The question is, can we do both, i.e. high quality and high impact?
The main point of this article is how to make our work (whether in industry or academia) more impactful, given that it is of high quality. Here are some thoughts:
Learn about the real problems
A lot of extremely successful entrepreneurs take time to learn and understand what the real issues are. Many organizations learn and adapt based on the changing needs of their customers. In a similar fashion, it would be good to keep an open mind and listen to the real needs out there, and then cater our solutions to those needs. We have been focused on intellectual merit and it is high time we put our work to create impact starting with knowing the real problems. Over time this would result in our emphasizing impact.
Understand the larger audience
In many circumstances our work has potential for impact but our larger audience does not know that. Some of us are too focused on elegant solutions to problems and want to present the beautiful math. However, our larger audience may not comprehend that and it may be necessary to “dumb it down” a little. At any rate, it is important to understand our audience, where they are coming from, what they care about, and relate to them in an effective manner (and possibly modifying some aspects of our work to show impact).
Articulate the potential impact
Many times we leave out things that are obvious to us. This includes potential impact. However simple or obvious, it is crucial to explicitly articulate the impact of our work. In fact, this could force us to reconsider the impact of our high-quality work. Those of us not involved in tremendously exciting and sensational work, it is crucial to present the impact as our work may not be as cool or fun! The point is to make it a habit to articulate impact and over time we could end up giving it the importance it deserves.