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06 Jul 2022


I spent last weekend facilitating a Business Creativity workshop. It reminded me how difficult it is to get innovation going. Four teams of business leaders, drawn from nine different sectors, burned the midnight oil as they attempted to design a new product, a complementary customer experience and a marketing campaign to launch the whole package.

Innovation is different from creativity, although people often conflate the two. Anyone can have a good idea. But turning an idea into action, and producing something that really works is very much harder. Perhaps that’s why Harvard Business School admits that more than 80% of new product launches globally fail. What a waste of time and money.

Innovative thinking, like critical thinking, does not come naturally to most people. That’s one reason innovation is so hard. Decades of research into neuroscience and psychology have confirmed we are highly efficient, fast, reflexive thinkers who seek to confirm what we already know. As a result, we are cognitively blind to disconfirming data and challenging ideas.

In addition, our approach to management thinking teaches us to rationalise away information that contradicts our beliefs and many cognitive biases. In general, we are not critical or innovative thinkers. Instead, we are confirmation machines.

Thinking differently is also emotionally challenging.  Emotionally, we seek to affirm our self-image by deploying the 3Ds (Deny, Defend, and Deflect) to ward off challenges to our worldview.  And everything in our education and work experience has taught us that good performance means avoiding failure, and not making mistakes. It’s hard to think ‘out of the box’ because, quite frankly, we like the box and are comfortable being in there!

To innovate we need to change our attitude toward failure. Being smart is not about knowing all the answers. Being smart is knowing what you don’t know, prioritising what you need to know, and being very good at finding the answers. Being smart requires you to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”

Returning to the weekend in question, all of the above was manifest. Subject matter experts in teams tended to apply handbrakes with greater determination as the ideation process went forward. Team-mates deferred to their knowledge.  But the exercise was really about tackling the unknown. Several teams became bogged down in technicalities. It felt like designing a new product by reading the existing instruction manual backwards. Only one team based their product design on a distinctive truth: policyholders don’t trust the insurance industry. Given more time, they could well develop a product to address a fundamental need. We encouraged them to continue the process.