Monday, February 14, 2011

Innovation and the curse of knowledge

Perhaps one of the most significant barriers to innovation is what we think we know, or "facts" that we are confident are correct.  As several cognitive experts have demonstrated, the more you know about a topic, the more difficult it becomes to imagine not knowing what you know.  In other words, the very knowledge and expertise that you have in a field often makes it difficult to create something radically new and different. 

Think about this for a minute and the evidence is all around you.  When we gather to generate ideas, typically there are a number of experienced people in the room, usually with a lot of experience in the topic you are interested in.  Yet many of these sessions end in rather incremental, ho-hum ideas, and little that's really radical or unique.  Often that's because the people in the room are so accustomed to their perspectives and share so much knowledge that they literally limit their thinking to what comprises their knowledge.  They are hemmed in by what they know, and further limited by what they are willing to admit or suggest in front of other experts.

It's been recommended that you should incorporate people with different skills, experiences and knowledge in an idea generation session, but if some subset of that group is seen as the "experts" their implied knowledge damps down idea creation, as everyone seeks the experts acknowledgment and approval.  Only a group with very strong personalities unafraid to challenge the orthodoxy can regularly generate disruptive ideas.  This is why so many "disruptive" ideas come from firms or individuals who aren't "in" a particular market - they aren't cursed with the knowledge of the market.

When your firm seeks help with innovation, don't ask a consultant if they have deep expertise in your industry or technology, because if they do they are likely to share the same curse of knowledge as your internal teams.  If you want help stretching your team, introduce third parties and consultants who have little or no knowledge of the "facts" of your problem or industry, and who are broad thinkers willing to generate ideas that may seem a bit heretical to your internal teams.  No competitor is going to steal your market by copying what you do exactly.  Disruption happens when a competitor spots an opportunity or offering that the firms in the industry are blinded to due to their "knowledge".  To innovate successfully, you've got to get outside your frame of reference and your knowledge.  Otherwise you simply tinker with the existing models, rather than create new offerings. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:34 AM


Anonymous Jim Morgan said...

Very true, Jeffrey. The relatively new science of behavioral operations points out that experts tend toward an "anchor and adjust" bias. The expert will shift only so far from a starting point that may not have a solid factual basis, and thus the final answer is not the optimal answer.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Rockhopper said...


"The discovery of water was not made by a fish." -- Gary Kissler

Seriously, cognitive biases (e.g., confirmation or availability bias) limit the ability of many individuals to think beyond what they already "know" to be true.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous M. L. Johnson said...

Not always, but a characterisitic of establishments. This is another iteration of "paradigm paralysis," in which individuals and corporations come to believe that their exstablished operations are the "only way to do things." Sadly, Western Union, Swiss watch making industry and Blockbuster Video have succumed to their own "success." M. L. Johnson

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Butterflute Studios said...

Looking for innovative ideas about something I know nothing about? I'm all yours.

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Graham Horton said...

Henry Ford's famous quote is very appropriate to this topic:
"I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can't be done."

3:35 AM  
Anonymous Graham Horton said...

Unfortunately, even if you manage to avoid the experts in creating the ideas, you usually end up having to use them to evaluate the ideas, in which case you are faced with a related problem...

3:37 AM  
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