Thursday, August 13, 2015

Innovation decreases with knowledge

Did the headline of the post grab your attention?  Did you think I was going to assert that dumb people are better innovators?  Nothing of the sort.  However, I think I can positively assert that bringing all of your knowledge to bear on a problem that needs innovation is often exactly the opposite of what you should do.  Here's why.

If you can solve a problem with all of the knowledge you possess, drawing on everything you know and expect to be true, you are narrowing your range of solutions and calling on past experience.  Most likely you are solving a problem the likes of which you've seen before, and replicating past solutions.  Nothing wrong with that, but the solution is unlikely to be new and different.  You see, drawing on all of your knowledge and experience is what the vast majority of us are paid to do each day, becoming "experts" in our specific domains.  And the more knowledge and expertise you have, the less likely you are to draw on new information or question your frameworks or perspectives.

To create something completely new and different, to "innovate" in my terminology, means to rethink how a problem is addressed, or even framed.  To look at a problem from a completely fresh perspective, not bringing all of the experience and knowledge to bear.  In other words, to look at a problem with a "beginner's mind" perspective.  You know who does this especially well?  Children, because they don't have experience or a pre-conceived frame of reference.  They want to know "why" a problem has been solved in a particular way in the past, rather than accepting that they way it was solved in the past is the right way.  Sometimes they even ask why something is considered a problem at all.

When we at OVO researched the traits that innovators share, we found time and time again that the best innovators are people who have the capability and willingness to explore problems and opportunities with a "beginner's mind" perception, who were willing to set aside all the conventions and knowledge and expectations and look at a problem as if for the first time.  The sainted and frequently referenced Steve Jobs was good at this, and other heralded innovators are as well.  But this approach works against the grain of everything we've been taught, and how we are managed and rewarded.  Very few people are willing to strip away all they know, and appear as naive children when looking at a corporate challenge or opportunity, yet that kind of exploration and discovery is often what's needed most, not another round of application of decades of experience which simply reinforce the status quo.

The more you apply what you know, your frame of reference, your perceptions and your conventions to a problem, the more likely you are to create "ideas" that resemble the solutions you already have.  Yet that is what most corporations constantly reinforce.  Instead, the same corporations seeking interesting or radical new ideas should ask 1) if what they think are problems are really problems 2) how they might address the problem from a naive, almost childlike point of view or 3) if they were encountering the challenge for the first time, with no past experience or worries about existing investments.  Or, perhaps, you could use your "bring your child to work" day to do real discovery and innovation, because children don't carry around all of the expectations and conventions, and aren't all that worried about what other grownups think about their ideas.

Can your organization, its culture and its leadership allow enough child-like exploration and discovery to flourish to allow really new ideas to grow, or will the culture constantly reinforce expertise, knowledge and convention, continually generating very similar versions of the same ideas?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:47 AM


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