The Biggest Obstacle to Innovation? You.

obstacle to innovationBy Leonard A. Schlesinger, Charles F. Kiefer, and Paul B. Brown

We aren’t being critical with that headline.

But the problem really is you. More specifically, it’s the way you were taught to think. However, don’t feel bad. First, you are not alone. All of us have the same problem. Second, and much more important, there is a solution.

But first let’s explain how the problem was created in the first place.

The Problem

From even before kindergarten, we all were taught to reason in a way that works fantastically well in a predictable world:

  • Establish a goal
  • Construct a number of plans to achieve that goal
  • Do tons of research to determine which is the best one
  • Gather the necessary resources to attain it
  • Go out and execute on that superior plan

We think of this as prediction reasoning, a way of thinking based on the assumption that the future is going to be pretty much like the past. And it is wonderful — in certain situations where we have tons of data and/or experience.

Are you a supplier to restaurants and want to know how much your revenues are likely to fall if we go into a double dip recession? There are fairly easy way to find out. Want to know how a 1-percent increase in housing starts will affect refrigerator sales? That’s predictable, too.

But when you are leading innovation, the world is anything but predictable. You are creating something that has never existed before and so you simply don’t know how the world is going to react. By definition, innovation deals with the unknown.

Back to You

And that’s why you are the biggest problem when it comes to innovation. If you keep using prediction reasoning in situations that are simply not predictable, you’re bound to be disappointed and frustrated.

You need a different way of thinking.

Our suggestion is to begin thinking like the people who are best at innovating and dealing with the unknown: serial entrepreneurs. After all, there is nothing more uncertain than starting a new business from scratch. In the face of the unknown, serial entrepreneurs act.

More specifically they:

  1. Take a small (smart) step forward. In starting a new business, it might be asking potential customers what they think about the idea.
  2. Pause to see what they learned by doing so. “Gee, the ground seems awfully squishy over there, I better step back and try a different direction.” Or, “In talking to people about X they didn’t seem all that interested, but they kept telling us over and over again if we tweaked it a bit …”
  3. Build that learning into what they do next. It might be presenting a sketch of the modified idea or showing a prototype.

The New Approach

This process is a far cry from the “plan, optimize, execute” of prediction reasoning. But it is precisely the kind of thinking that will let you get out of your own way when you’re leading innovation.

Now, we aren’t suggesting that you eliminate prediction reasoning. There are two reasons we’re not. First, as we have seen, prediction works really well when the future can realistically be expected to be similar to the past and you never want to discard something that works well in a specific situation. The way of thinking we are advocating complements the way you were taught to reason; it doesn’t replace it.

Second, entrepreneurs continue to use prediction reasoning effectively in the situations where it works well, i.e., in the places where it is logical to assume that the future will be a lot like what has come before. (“What can we expect in incremental sales from an add-on product;” “How should we go about creating next year’s budget, given this year’s success?”)

You always want to use the right tool for the job.

Two Questions

But thinking differently is difficult, especially since prediction reasoning is so ingrained. Let us give you two questions you can ask when you find your way of thinking blocking innovation:

  1. Instead of thinking some more, is there an action I can take right away?
  2. Can I make whatever action I just imagined cheap enough so that it lies within my affordable loss?

You may or may not actually take the action, depending on your ultimate judgment. But asking the questions interrupts and sheds light on your thinking habits and it will open you up to different way to ways of solving whatever challenge you face.

If you use prediction reasoning when it makes sense but think like an entrepreneur when it doesn’t, you’ll find you will have eliminated the biggest problem to innovation: You.

NOTE: This statement was originally posted in Harvard Business Review Blog Network


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