Monday, April 22, 2019

For interesting innovation, ignore your instincts

I've been around the block for a while, and every once in a while I'll tell the folks on my team who are younger than me what's likely to happen with a specific strategy or project.  Since they are young and a bit wet behind the ears, it often comes as a surprise to them that I can predict with some degree of certainty what's likely to happen.  What they don't realize is that I have the blessing of past experience, and from that experience I can recognize patterns and previous behaviors, and interpret how current activities will play out based on past successes or failures.  To some extent, I'm banking on my observations and experiences.  I'm also calling on my instinct as to what will happen in a particular set of conditions.

Trusting your gut and working within a set of predictable parameters can be a fun parlor game in the day to day operations of a large corporation.  These capabilities are not, however, what you want to bring to bear when you innovate.  In fact your past experiences, recognition of patterns and instincts may be holding you back.

How instinct holds you back

You may ask - what's wrong or dangerous about using well-honed experience and instincts when I innovate?  These capabilities have served you well in the past - prevented you from making the rookie mistakes that younger or less experienced team members often make.  Here's the issue - if innovation is meant to create truly new and different products and services, then the work is likely to go beyond the scope of your knowledge and experience.  If you can safely evaluate new innovation activities and outcomes within your own past experience, there's a good chance the work you are doing is incremental, not transformative.

Worse, when you bring all of your historical baggage with you, you will try to force ideas to work within the context you are familiar with and where you can bring your past knowledge and frameworks to bear.  After all, what's the use of having all this experience if we can't use it?

Good innovation work should take us outside our comfort zone, beyond the course of our knowledge and by all means into uncertain waters.  If you then try to force all the innovation work you do into a paradigm where your experience can help you make quick decisions or apply certain rules of thumb, then you will constrain your thinking and bring all the idea generation back into a setting that you can control.

Are you willing to go beyond your experience?

The real question - and it becomes more important in innovation every day - is whether or not you are willing to move into spaces and discoveries beyond your experience, where your instinct and your pattern recognition doesn't work and may not even be applicable.  It's in this zone where new ideas that haven't been tried or haven't been applied correctly live.  Steve Jobs referred frequently to the idea of beginner's mind, which to me is one of the most important traits a real innovator can possess.  Beginner's mind is the ability to look at a problem as if for the first time, without bias, without experience.  To ask, how might we solve this problem in the absence of past knowledge.

That activity is almost a waste of time if you are trying to solve the problem quickly and with existing capabilities or technologies.  A beginner's mind approach is infinitely valuable if  you are trying to get a fresh look at an old problem or find new, untested solutions.  This is why people with years of experience in an industry rarely create ideas that seem fresh or new, while people outside an industry can create ideas that seem strange or unusual to those within the industry.

There's another reason to ignore your instincts

Another reason to ignore your instincts has to to with the nature and pace of change.  Many of us grew up in a hierarchical organization where power and information flowed top-down, and slowly at that.  Increasingly we are faced with flatter organizations that are closer to the customer and living and acting in real time.  Digital transformation is going to unleash a tremendous amount of new data and new insights, which will naturally unleash new operating models, new business models and new experiences.  All of which mean your instincts, which are based on more stable models where less information was available and change was more predictable, less accurate.

This all means that your instincts are honed to slower change and growth than is underway, and more than likely your attention is drawn to solutions that have been promised and away from where real change is happening.  What you think should take years to change may take days or months, and where you expect change to occur or what you think will remain stable may turn out to be the reverse.

Do instincts go out the window?

So, when we innovate, must we wander around like children using Beginner's Mind and ignoring all historical conventions?  Do our instincts matter when innovating?  This is again a question of divergence and convergence.  During the necessary divergence of exploration and discovery, instincts can hold you back.  When we converge, however, there are still the same challenges of feasibility, viability and desirability, and your instincts may be more useful in this context.

The point isn't to ignore or eliminate your instincts, your historical knowledge and your ability to recognize patterns.  It's to help you think about when these attributes add value in an innovation setting, and when they become barriers to doing good innovation work.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:43 AM


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