After reading a few books on innovation, it strikes me that the demands of innovation run counter to common modes of thinking and group dynamics in ways that I did not initially realize.
It’s natural to want to be right—win the argument, own the best idea, avoid failure. So we grab an idea, make it ours, and defend it. It merges with our egos. If it wins, we win. If it loses, we lose. It is this win-lose framework that kills innovation.
Innovation takes us into the unknown. It’s new by definition. We may have ideas about how to proceed but cannot know the answers in advance. So we must proceed through hypothesis and experimentation, learning from ideas that work and those that fail. It is those ideas that fail early through experimentation that guide us to success.
When an idea gets hitched to an ego, it must be right, it must succeed, it needs no experimentation, it must go forward. And going forward, the risk of failing big increases; the chance of learning something new—about the technology, the market, the business model—decreases. Innovation suffers.
Peter Drucker in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985) wrote that the unexpected, both failures and successes, and incongruities between reality and assumptions are key sources of innovations, but also represent hard-to-acknowledge mistakes.
In The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), Clayton M. Christensen wrote:
…in many instances, the information required to make large and decisive investments in the face of disruptive technology simply does not exist. It needs to be created through fast, inexpensive, and flexible forays into the market and the product. The risk is very high that any particular idea about the product attributes or market applications of a disruptive technology may not prove to be viable. Failure and iterative learning are, therefore, intrinsic to the search for success with a disruptive technology.
Ironically, Christensen writes, companies find this failure difficult to tolerate precisely because of their tradition of success with current technologies.
Writing of the design philosophy of IDEO, Tom Kelley in The Art of Innovation (2001) notes that “good companies embrace a culture of mini-failures” and adhere to the credo “fail often to succeed sooner.”
Stefan H. Thomke in Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation (2003) argues that experimentation is fundamental to the innovation process, but that in many organizations “a relentless organizational focus on success makes true experimentation all too rare.”
So innovation demands prying assumptions loose from our egos, freeing them from politics, and putting them to the test. Now that’s not easy.
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