Friday, August 12, 2022

Creating the conditions for disruptive innovation

 In what is probably one of the most revered books among innovators, Edward De Bono wrote about six "thinking" hats.  The point of his book is to recognize and acknowledge that many people, either intentionally or often unintentionally, play roles or "wear hats" that represent a specific point of view.

De Bono identified six perspectives or "hats" that people wear.  The hats he defined are:

  1. The conductor hat - the role that drives a meeting
  2. The creative hat
  3. The emotions hat
  4. The optimist hat
  5. The judging hat
  6. The factual hat
Whether we mean to or not, it's likely that when we attend meetings, listen to pitches, create ideas, we are listening and participating in one or more of these perspectives.  Often, many people will be wearing either the factual hat - like the famous detective, just give me the facts, or the judging hat - does what is being said meet with my experience?  Conversely, few people are willing in most business settings to wear the emotions hat - it seems too illogical in businesses where we have divorced ourselves from emotion, or the optimist hat - no one wants to be seen as naïve or too optimistic in a business setting.

So, many businesses, for many different reasons, start out with unbalanced perspectives, typically over weighted toward what is reasonable and expected today.  If what you hope to do is approve approaches or ides that fit into the existing standards, this approach is probably OK, although it will only reinforce the status quo.  If you are hoping to "shake things up" or create new products or services, these perspectives will simply block most ideas.

New perspectives needed

In fact, the more your environment is changing, the more competitors you have, the more intense the competition within your industry is, the more you need new perspectives.  Whether you refer to this as the "creative hat" as de Bono did, or refer to it as a naive or uninformed opinion, or think about it with the wonder of a child, your teams need this perspective.

The more change you want to create, the more you need the creative hat, the wonder and discovery inherent in child-like thinking.  And this flies in the face of everything we hold near and dear in a business setting, where hard facts and past experience are supposed to hold sway.  As if personal gains, politics, favoritism and other factors never play a part in what is decided!

Getting naïve to get ahead

There is an old saying, attributed to African tribes, that says if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.  I'd suggest a corollary to this idea:  if you want incremental ideas, rely on the existing perspectives.  If you want new, fresh and radical ideas, get new perspectives and don't shout them down.

But let's be honest - no business worth its salt is going to welcome in a bunch of naive idea generators or better yet children into the boardroom to create new products and services, even if the businesses need these perspectives.  Every growing business needs someone, internal or external, who is willing to contribute insights and ideas that are outside the norm.  

Some companies have successfully partnered with third party idea generators who are active provocateurs - who openly question the status quo.  Third parties don't have a stake in the way things work today and can question existing norms in ways that internal personnel can't or won't.  In other settings, I've watched de Bono fans use the hats - actual hats in a meeting - to ensure someone is playing the role.  But playing a part, like an actor who may or may not truly believe in the concepts, is different than expressing ideas from a sense of new discovery or wonder.

Who within the business can take on the role of the naïve perspective?  How long can someone last in that role?  

Why can't we innovate?

I get asked quite frequently - why can't large firms create interesting new ideas?  I have a litany of answers, but ultimately they boil down to this:  lock-in.  Once a company reaches a certain size and has an investment to protect, the thinking shifts from creativity and growth to defend and protect.  Good ideas are often going to call existing products, services and even business models into question.  

It's not that people lack creativity or can't think in child-like exploration and wonder, it's that they will be ridiculed for creating ideas that call the existing product line or business model into question, or that they are so well compensated within the existing model that it is anathema for them to think outside of it.

By the way, I have had the opportunity to work with some large firms on some relatively disruptive ideas.  Those that were able to bring those ideas to market were most successful doing so in a way that did not disrupt their existing operations.  This means that many disruptive ideas need to be launched as a new business or in new channels or markets.

Outside the box?  Hardly

CEOs will often say they want ideas that are "outside the box" meaning that they want new ideas that create new value.  You can get new ideas from old sources - just look at Einstein.  You can get new ideas from a team wedded to the existing operating models.  To do so, you simply need to make the status quo untenable.  As long as the status quo is reasonably safe, and other options are reasonably risky, the only ideas you'll get are incremental ideas, and the folks who do manage to generate and sponsor radical ideas will be considered difficult troublemakers who "don't get the business we are in".

There's a leadership gap here as well.  Executives need to tell their teams that "what got us here won't help us succeed in the future".  If that is the case, then segregate the core business and its operations from innovation, and run them separately.  Insulate the existing core business from your new ideas, to protect the nascent ideas from the resistance the existing business will create, and protect your core business from the disruption you are going to cause.  Otherwise, don't ask for interesting ideas, you'll only waste time and anger some of your best thinkers.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:24 AM


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