Executive Education

DNA Is Killing Your Firm’s Innovation

Innovation Cycle

Innovation has been a centerpiece of human history. We humans like to credit ourselves with improving on the lives of our forbearers — from the discovery of the wheel, the productivity of the Industrial Age, the connectivity of the Information Age, we tend to view our capacity to innovate as boundless. But, in fact, many of our instincts hold us back from it comes to innovating. To really tap into innovation and creative problem solving, we need to circumvent the parts of our DNA wired to recognize patterns and make mental shortcuts, but that are roadblocks when trying to generate new ideas.

CEOs and business leaders know that the effort to come up with product ideas and innovations to excite customers requires colossal creative exertion and an enormous amount of risk-taking. The considerable toil in taking a product from idea to development to launch is both time and energy intensive. If it also demands dealing with naysayers at the table for whom novel ideas demand too much of a mental leap, valuable momentum is lost.

Look, it’s important to acknowledge that we all have a tendency toward naysaying. It comes from an inherent bias against venturing into unknown territory. We’re descendants of risk-averse ancestors whose self-preservation instincts served them well in prehistoric times when potential danger lurked behind every boulder or bush.

Playing it safe was quite adaptive when the cost of being wrong was truly a matter of life or death. But the stakes are rarely that high in the modern boardroom. Ironically, playing it safe is more likely to threaten our survival in the market. In today’s world, where innovation rules, our survival necessitates overcoming these ingrained behavioral biases that hinder creative ideas and stifle innovative solutions.

We need to work constantly and consciously on compensating for the “bugs” wired into our cognition to reduce their innovation-inhibiting forces. By learning to recognize how cognitive biases operate subconsciously, we can strategically employ more effort, more focus, and more conscious thought for creative endeavors.

Take Negativity Bias, one of the greatest enemies of innovative thinking. We’re conditioned to allow negative impressions to form more quickly than positive ones. A seminal study has proven that, in our minds, bad is stronger than good — negative information, experiences, and even negative people have a stronger effect on us than positive ones. When Negativity Bias joins us at the table, it can stymie even the most adept thinking — like trying to run with cement shoes.

Negativity Bias often keeps us from voicing creative ideas for fear of being thought foolish, impractical, or just plain odd. Yet, early in the innovation process, ideas should be golden nuggets that expand our thinking and promote discovery. When we err on the side of caution and believe that early-stage ideas need to be fully formed and complete, we automatically lapse into judgment mode instead of discovery mode. To preempt this natural tendency, each member of the group needs to set out in the spirit of contributing half-baked, uncensored and even impractical ideas, just to see where they might lead.

To get past our individual and collective cognitive biases when the goal is to arrive at breakthrough possibilities, follow these four mind-expanding practices:

  1. Consciously change your language.Groups effectively kill innovative ideas with “Yes, but…” comments: “Yes, but it will take too long.” “Yes, but it’s too expensive.” “Yes, but we can’t manufacture it.” Purposely using “Yes, and…” emphasizes what people are in favor of, and invites broader participation. Saying: “Yes, and,” and then adding to the idea, helps the team respond to new ideas in a way that illuminates their potential while also acknowledging that ideas don’t have to be perfect at the outset.
  1. Generate new ideas sparked from any original idea.When you think of or hear an innovative idea, make a list of the aspects that are interesting or promising about it (what you’refor), and that show its potential. Don’t worry about addressing any problems with the idea. Instead, focus on what’s good about it. Then, next to the forlist, make a list of what you wish for with the idea. This isn’t a list of cons, but focuses on the issues within the idea that may require problem solving. Use language when you propose wish for items such as “How might we…(reduce the cost); ” or “I wish…(it could be safe).” Finally, use the wish for list and try to generate solutions. The difference between “It costs too much,” and “How might we reduce the cost?” makes all the difference. This method allows you to optimize the original idea.
  1. Use imaginative role-playing.Often, in creative endeavors, it’s best to put the rational mind aside. Dr. Stephanie Carlson, an expert on brain development at the University of Minnesota, has demonstrated that imaginative role-playing leads to alternative ways of seeing an issue and results in more creativity and better problem solving. By pretending to be superheroes or some other characters, group members put a psychological distance between themselves and the problem. For example, what would Superman, with his superior strength, do to remove an obstacle? Imaginative role-playing provides more flexibility for discovering new and different options that can lead to innovative solutions.
  1. Be brave. Don’t censor yourself.Often the biggest “yes, but…” is not the one delivered to you, it’s the one you deliver to yourself. You will have some crazy, wonderful, and perhaps unsavory ideas. But you think they might be upsetting, foolish, and even humiliating to share them. So you spare the group by self-censoring your “less-than-perfect” ideas. But maybe one of those ideas is the one that will lead to another idea that will lead to the solution everyone is seeking. And, by taking a risk, you model the much-desired behavior of “all ideas are welcome here.” Remember, it’s possible to extract value from even the most outlandish ideas if you allow the team to give them proper consideration.

You can find more information about the book here “Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward”. The views expressed in this article are those of the author (Edward Sz Harrington) alone and not the CEOWORLD magazine.

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Edward S Harrington
Edward S Harrington is CEO at Ideas To Go and has spent twenty-five years helping a who's who of corporate America come up with new and innovative ideas. He serves on the Yale Center for Customer Insights board of directors. Together with Adam Hansen and Beth Storz, he is co-author of the new book, Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward (Forness Press).