From a recent IBM press release [emphasis added]:
A complex physics calculation that will take [the new] Roadrunner [supercomputer] one week to complete, would have taken the 1998 machine 20 years...
Put that in the back of your mind. Now step back and ponder the following hypothetical situation:
You're a business executive (or government official) facing a big, gnarly problem that absolutely, positively must be solved in ten years. If you don't make the deadline, something bad will happen. You'll go out of business, you'll fail to win re-election, your shareholders will revolt, the Huns will invade. Something bad. You've got to solve this problem. Your career (and maybe more) depend on it.
With current technologies, processes and general know-how though, you know you can't make it in time. Sure, you can reach the goal -- in theory, eventually -- but it's going to be really really expensive. And it's certain you're going to be late. Ten years late, in this case.
The problem will get solved, but the Huns will be running the place by that point. You'll be out of a job, maybe worse: lawsuit, jail, early retirement, HBR case studies that make you look like a complete idiot and laughingstock in hindsight... that sort of thing. Your grandkids will still love you... until they get to business school and read the case. But I digress.
So, you have two choices:
Start throwing wheelbarrows of cash and thousands of bodies at the problem. Or invest judiciously in innovation -- and, at least as importantly, an innovation culture -- and wait patiently for those to bear fruit. (There's a third option: waiting for others to innovate for you, but we'll leave that aside for now because it only applies in limited situations where you can be fairly certain someone is working on the thing you need and that you'll be able to buy whatever it is they come up with.)
In either case, (#2 or #3, that is) you may have to wait years. You won't have much to tell your shareholders in the meantime, other than "we've hired the best, given them the best resources, incented them up the wazoo and tried not to be too meddlesome -- those creative folks don't take well to corporate bureaucrats, y'know." But when something does come along, you'll be able to really impress them: "You remember that problem we thought would take twenty years to solve? We finally got started on it, and we're targeting completion... next Wednesday." Sounds like promotion material, doesn't it? And your grandkids won't be laughing at you when they get to business school.
The tough part, of course, is all the verbal bobbing and weaving for the first ten years when nothing seems to be happening. No highly visible hordes of minions toting 10-ton blocks of stone up pyramids on wooden rollers (and dying by the dozens, getting you in trouble with OSHA). Just a bunch of folks wandering around in lab coats (or, more likely, surf shorts and goatees, playing foos-ball between all-night stints at the white-board).
Sometimes waiting (and investing) is better than charging ahead, using up all of your cash on old, dumb, slow methods that you know will be a day late and a dollar short.