Measuring "Pioneer-ness" at TED

Mar 1, 2011, 2:42 AM, Posted by Lori Melichar

I'm thrilled to attend TED this week. In addition to being open to new ideas that might morph into fundable projects for RWJF, I’ll be expanding and refining my thoughts about measuring “pioneer-ness.” This means trying to distill a core definition of "pioneering" and validating this definition – seeking, in the end, a scale and/or indicators rwjf staff and others can use to objectively score the ideas we support.


I plan to collect data by having each RWJF program officer here rate presentations as "pioneering, innovative, interesting, or not that interesting" and by interviewing fellow attendees about how they make determinations about the ideas they're hearing.

As the week goes on, I may find I have a checklist I can use to score each idea.

 I may not.

If I had to answer the question today of "what is pioneering”—and how you measure it – I'd say, without taking credit for the language: 

“Pioneering ideas have potential for breakthrough solutions to emerging or persistent problems."

If I had to answer the question today, how do you make decisions about pioneering (vs merely innovative) ideas, I'd say:

“RWJF pioneer team members seem to know it when they see it.”

If I had to answer the question today of  "how do you measure ‘pioneeringness,"  I’d say:  

“I don't yet have good indicators, but a scale to measure "pioneer-ness" would surely include elements of newness, unexpectedness, risk (carefully defined),and  the potential for a leap in progress. These projects also have the potential to transform health care with out-of-the-box solutions.”

I'm not sure if I would include the elements of elegant or simple, but I'm expecting to be most blown away by ideas that I understand but never would have come to me.

I hope a few new ideas will come to me as well.

Update to original post: I’ve been asking each of my colleagues (and TED attendees I’ve interviewed) to rate the ideas presented as Pioneering/innovative/interesting.

I found that scale limiting, and have expanded to: Pioneering/innovative/important/interesting. Though something can be innovative, but not important technically, so I’m going to work with this scale until it breaks down.

Here are some words and concepts that are being associated with the concept of pioneering:

  • (un)Predictability: However, it’s not always clear what’s better in terms of impact. Julie Taymor talks about the value of not knowing where you are going to end up, so I think that having a project that allows for unpredictable outcomes will have  more pioneering potential.
  • Simplicity
  • Understandable
  • Done before?
  • Tried before: This is a real challenge. I’ve started with a score of pioneering for more than one idea, until speaking with others and finding out that someone else has done this before.
  • Redefine rules?
  • Suggest an infrastructure?: This is likely to result in lasting social change (no need to define the type of change..maybe that’s unpredictable)
  • Hypothesis driven?
  • About discovery?

I’ll continue to hone this scale throughout the remainder of TED and will let you know how things shape-up after the conference.