Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Why expertise is a seductive trap for innovation

 I've been thinking for years that we have innovation all wrong.  We treat innovation as it if requires years of experience, deep knowledge of an industry or a technology, or mastery of a specific subject.  I think far too often we fall into the fallacy of expertise, and look for great ideas from people who are deeply experienced in one technology or field.  This seems like a logical approach.  People who have deep experience must know where opportunities lie, right?

The problem with innovating with experts in a field is that they think they have explored every nuance and pathway, or that someone else in the field has.  These are the people who are most likely to say an idea "won't work" or that "it has been tried before".  And, in many cases, they are probably right.  But not always.  Experts told us that heavier than air flight was impossible.  Lord Kelvin, one of the brightest scientific minds of his day, felt that nothing heavier than air could fly.  Scientists expected that any craft exceeding the speed of sound would break apart.  In 1942 Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM, was quoted as saying that the world market would need a maximum of 5 computers.  All were experts in their field, and all either accepted the received wisdom, were too confident in their own knowledge, or could not forecast how much and how rapidly technologies would change.

No, it took a couple of bike mechanics to develop the first viable heavier-than-air plane.  A couple of enthusiasts who tinkered and explored, while other, more well-known scientists received thousands of dollars in government grants failed.

We come not to bury experts

I'm not interested in castigating experts, except when it comes to innovation.  We, all of us, become experts in our chosen paths and fields, and most of us, when confronted with a "new" idea, will search our memory banks to consider whether this idea has been presented before (some version probably has) and what happened the last time it was presented.  We call on our store of knowledge to rapidly eliminate ideas, rather than our store of wonder, to consider what could be possible.  Don't worry, like a lot in modern life, it's not your fault.  You've been taught to use your time efficiently, to place bets only where there is a significant return on investment and winnowing out a list of any proposed alternatives is something we've perfected.

What we often don't recognize are the fallacies that lie within the questions we ask.  For example, are "old" ideas always useless?  There are Roman aqueducts that still carry water thousands of years later.  If an idea failed previously, is it possible that technologies have adapted, market needs have changed in such a way that the idea is now valid?  In our haste to reject ideas, we ignore our own narrow viewpoints.

From the mouths of babes and neophytes

You know who won't express concerns about most ideas?  Children.  Children are filled with wonder and are naturally creative.  You will rarely hear a kid exclaim "that won't work" about a new idea and they never say "that's been tried before", Of course, some ideas that children have are probably far-fetched and impossible, but that's what childhood is for.  Our educational system, unfortunately, squeezes all of the creativity and wonder out of us by the time we reach high school, in the hopes that we will all learn the same facts and regurgitate them in the same way.  No wonder so many of our best innovators and entrepreneurs seemed like such outsiders.  Most did not fit into the standard educational mold that we created.

Children don't run businesses

Ah, but you'll say, we cannot trust the future growth of our company to kids with crazy ideas. Again, there is a strange dichotomy at work.  Venture Capitalists are shoveling money into companies run by recent college grads with little professional experience but deep belief in ONE IDEA.  As an established corporation, it makes sense to ask:  are we ready to outsource our idea generation and next generations of products and services to startups, assuming we can afford to license their products or acquire their companies?

Established businesses need solid, business-ready ideas that are practical with a high degree of success to invest in.  This is true, to a point.  As anyone who has been in or adjacent to innovation work in the past 20 years knows, there is a need for consistent, predictable innovation that moves the needle just a bit (incremental innovation) to create the next version of an existing product.  This is vital work but should not consume more than 50% of your innovation budget.  What, don't have an innovation budget?  That's another sign your company isn't serious about innovation.

In-source or Out-Source the other 50%

Which leaves 50% of your company's time, resources and funds to do real exploration.  Who do you want to lead that?  An expert who is likely to tell you what's wrong with your ideas before they leave the drawing board?  The scientists who said that airplanes could not fly?  Is this who you want leading the portion of your work that will dictate future product and service offerings?  Corporations have a choice - start evaluating the startups and neophytes who are attacking your industry and gobble them up as they become viable, or do your own homework.

The department of wonder

Every decision and every department in your organization seeks predictability and efficiency.  You have a strong finance team that can calculate your EBITDA to three decimals.  You have a top notch sales team that hits its sales targets quarter after quarter.  You have product teams and engineering teams that work at exceptional rates of efficiency.  All of these in service to current state.

You need one team that focuses on what's next, what unlikely combinations may occur, what new markets and needs may emerge.  There's no one doing that work - R&D is looking for new technologies, so you may not need to sweat that side of things, but they aren't responsible for seeking out new markets, new needs, new combinations.  

You need a department of wonder.  This department would exist to explore new opportunities, finds new emerging needs and markets, consider unlikely mash-ups of technologies and capabilities, seek out adjacent opportunities.  While this seems entirely unscientific and a likely source of ridicule, done correctly, it will generate far more, and far better ideas, than anything you are doing today.

In case you think this recommendation is unusual, hark back to Edison and his Menlo Park team, a number of people who were experts in emerging technologies, trying to create mash-ups.  Or the original Bell Labs, where scientists from different disciplines were in regular interaction, seeking happy accidents.  

You don't need to entrust your future innovation decisions to children or neophytes, but you do need a sense of child-like wonder and the ability of the people who are focused on that work to suspend disbelief if you are to create any really interesting ideas.  After all, Airbnb was not created by experts in the hotel business, but by a couple of guys who decided to rent out a spare room.  

In the end, the choice is yours, and you won't be alone if you follow the safe and proven path of trusting in experts to delivery near-term product improvements.  Most companies in most industries follow this path. It's not until some upstart, some college kid with venture backing, two guys with a spare bedroom create a solution that becomes more valuable than the established competitors that someone says - how did we miss this opportunity?  Were the Airbnb guys smarter than the combined intelligence in Marriott?  I seriously doubt it.  Moreover, I'm willing to bet you lunch that there were people at Marriott who have presented plans that looked a lot like Airbnb before Airbnb existed.

And, if I am wrong about Marriott having prior exploration about the potential market opportunity that Airbnb explored, what does it say about Marriott's leadership and its sense of possibility and wonder?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:53 AM


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