Monday, March 28, 2011

Thinking the unthinkable - an innovation necessity

"Solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short" is how Thomas Hobbs, a political thinker from the 1600s described the "life of man".  Hobbs, along with John Locke and a number of other social and political theorists, developed ideas around the social contract which influenced many thinkers and lead to changes in government in the United States (our revolution from England) and in other countries.

Hobbs was describing the fate of people when everyone seeks to gain at the expense of everyone else.  Only legitimate governance could improve the fates of men.  His thinking and the thinking of others led to the Enlightenment and influenced Jefferson, Franklin and others as well.  So why the history lesson?

I too have a theory:  the more "nasty, brutish and short" the timeframe for innovation, the more likely the firm will be to seek disruptive innovation.  Here's what I mean by that.

Too often firms will "innovate" - that is, seek to stretch their thinking or boundaries slightly, when another firm introduces a new product or service.  However, since the pain or shift isn't so great, the effort given to the innovation is rather slight and the results are often at best incremental.  Firms don't typically extend themselves into radical or disruptive innovation until they've exercised every other option.  Then, when all "reasonable" responses are exhausted, they exercise the unreasonable or unthinkable options.

Innovators, in large firms and in small firms, seem to work best when all the extraneous and reasonable options have been stripped away, when they work under tight timeframes to achieve the impossible or unexpected.  In other words, innovators will work best and seem to achieve the best outcomes, when their environment is nasty, their work is brutish, and their time is short.  Innovating from a position of comfort and security, tinkering around the edges, will only result in incremental innovation. 

What's interesting is how much time is lost, how many opportunities squandered, getting to that result.  Many firms have started and shut down new product development or innovation activities that tinkered with the margins, at first unwilling to consider the unreasonable or unthinkable alternatives.  Over time they realize that the small shifts aren't valuable and fall further and further behind.  What might have been possible if they skipped immediately to the unreasonable and unthinkable options from the start?  Certainly the approach would have been a shock to the system, but perhaps that's exactly what was needed.

By nasty, brutish and short I don't mean we should lock innovators in a dungeon and feed them bread and water.  But what I do mean is that often the only way to think differently is to strip away all the comfortable attributes we cling to and think cannot change, and start from that vantage point.  Placing greater importance, a sense of urgency and a short timeframe only heightens the pace of thinking and change.  Otherwise change moves at the pace the organization will bear, slowly if at all.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:03 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Jeffrey! Nice article. Have you read any of Teresa Amabile's work on time pressure and creativity? She has a different perspective. Here's a link to an interview that overviews what she has found.

I'd be interested in your thoughts.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Phillips said...

Hi Gwen:

I am familiar with Amabile's work. I think we are discussing two similar but slightly different concepts. In my blog "Thinking the Unthinkable" what I want to suggest is that it is hard to innovate from a position of comfort and security. When innovators work from a perspective where they have little risk and must protect the status quo, they will create small incremental innovations. It's only when all the supports are stripped away and they are left with nothing that they will think differently, or "think the unthinkable".

Amabile's research suggests that people need more time and more contemplation to be more innovative and creative, which I agree with - in that sense I think of it as aggregate creativity. But when it comes to a disruptive innovation, the less time, less infrastructure and less security, the more likely the team is to think disruptively.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Hi Jeffrey - some great points in your post. Often it's the crisis that drives the innovation need, whether it's external and uncontrollable, or an internal, almost self-induced set of circumstances. People stretch their performance beyond previously self-perceived limits, as long as they have the support of senior management in order to clear away unnecessary boundaries.

12:29 AM  
Anonymous Rich Antcliff said...

I really wish this were not true. We went through a tough period a couple of years ago and innovators came out of the woodwork. With more stability those same people retreated back into their comfort zones and were not willing to take risks.
I would love to find out that there is another way to motivate folks to innovate.

6:23 PM  
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7:59 PM  
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