Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Innovation Failure: Ignorance or Arrogance?

In my Twitter stream yesterday I found this nice article by Michael Schrage entitled Embrace your ignorance.  His slightly provocative title is meant to signal that perhaps you live in a self-satisfied bubble of assumed intelligence and knowledge about your customer, when in fact you should be happy to be humble about your ignorance, and act accordingly.

Schrage goes on to extol the values of experimentation and "big data" as methods to discover what customers really want, but here he loses me a bit.  I'd rather go back to an even simpler way of discovering needs, by asking and observing in real time where the real opportunities and pains exist, or where actual solutions fall short or have gaps.  Ethnography, getting close to the customer and their use of a solution or their experience, is what indicates where the opportunities and problems lie.  From those observations we can extrapolate and create potential solutions, which can become the basis for experiments, which will prove or perhaps disprove our hypothesis.  I worry that all the emphasis on "big data" will signal shifts that seem important but aren't, or miss factors that can't be captured in quantitative data.  As Einstein noted, not everything that counts can be counted.

Embracing your Ignorance

Good innovators are humble people.  I don't mean that they are people who grovel, or let others walk all over them.  Certainly Steve Jobs will never be known as a "humble" person in that sense.  What I mean is that they have the scars of experience, of making the wrong assumptions or even having the audacity to suggest they know what customers needed, and failing.  Humility comes when we recognize that customers decide the value and importance of our products and services.  No matter how valuable or important we think they are, customers determine the value.  The faster we understand this and learn to listen and observe, the more likely we are to create innovations that matter.

In our work we've identified a number of attributes that good innovators possess.  One of those we highlight is "beginner's mind" - that is, the ability to examine a problem or opportunity as if for the first time.  Too many times we approach a problem with the full suite of knowledge and experience, never recognizing that all the knowledge and experience narrows the potential scope of outcomes.  Knowledge and experience about candles doesn't open the door to electric light, it merely makes more effective candles.  To think differently and creatively about a problem or opportunity we need to think about it with a beginner's mindset, something that Jobs to his credit did well.  Rather than rush to apply everything we know, instead approach the problem as if for the first time.  In the absence of knowledge or experience, how might you solve the challenge or problem?

Losing your arrogance

Too often corporate innovators are guilty of unintentional arrogance.  They are guilty of assuming that they know what customers want, or worse, of simply creating new technology or new solutions with features that they either think customers want, or features that are simply better than what the competition offers.  This arrogance is often built on past successes that span years, so the arrogance can be earned, and in some cases even justified.  But increasingly the further a person is from a customer and their needs, and the longer it's been since you walked in that customer's shoes, the more likely you are arrogating - the word arrogance derives from - making undue claims in an overbearing manner.  Pride goeth before a fall, but I suspect arrogance goes shortly thereafter.

Ignorance or Apathy?

There's an old joke about education, where the individual in question responds with I don't know and I don't care (Ignorance and/or Apathy).  In the case of a modern day innovator, armed with social media, surveying tools, focus groups, big data, experiments and a host of other methods to gather insight, ignorance simply isn't plausible. There is simply too much data, too much information to plead ignorance about an opportunity.  That suggests apathy, which I'll also reject.  Most innovators I've come in contact with are passionate people, who want to do a good job and deliver value to customers.  What's left after ignorance and apathy?  Well, there are two remaining reasons why innovation discovery fails:  time constraints and arrogance.

The first barrier is a time or resource constraint.  Far too many people recognize the need for more customer interaction, more data analysis, more discovery and experimentation, but they simply cannot find the time.  Highly efficient processes leave little time and room for experimentation or new discoveries.  Thus many innovations are launched on a hope and prayer that the innovator guessed correctly, since they didn't have time to gather needs.  On the other hand is arrogance.  Too many innovators and their companies believe they know what customers need and deliver new technologies or features without ever discovering needs.  They might have the time but don't have the inclination.  This approach happens far more frequently in high tech or software industries, where adding new features is simpler, but it happens in all industries.  Arrogance is a real problem for innovators who assert that they know what customers want, or assert that new products and features are so compelling that they will override customer concerns.

Get rid of your arrogance, get rid of your ignorance

If you are willing to lose a bit of your arrogance, you can easily get rid of your ignorance.  Becoming a bit more humble, interacting with customers, understanding their needs and journeys, will open the door to new discoveries.  With these discoveries you become more knowledgeable about their needs and possible innovation opportunities, which you can test and validate through experiments.  Losing your arrogance helps you lose your ignorance.  Sustaining your arrogance sustains your ignorance and wastes valuable time and resources.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:04 AM


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