Impediments: Psychology Of Innovation – Stupidophobia

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Often when trying to find new products, we are in our own way and a difficult psychology of innovation results. An example: In my talks I often stress the point that work (amongst others) may be divided in two categories:

  1. To continuously improve the existing: Generating value and money with what we have (Horizon 1)
  2. Discover the new, find new problems for new people to be solved: Enable future value, growth etc. (Horizon 2)

That is the core of the Three Horizons model, which extends those two aspects by a third Horizon: Generate options for future growth. This simply is Horizon 2 looking even further into future, making us even more unknown and even more fuzzy. So, I won’t stress it here. The cultural consequences are quite similar.

3 Horizons model

3 Horizons model

Now, there are millions of reasons why Horizon 2 work is hard for us and there is an article by me on a different platform coming up on how to handle this a bit better. Here are some

  • H1 means predictability, H2 means uncertainty
  • H1 means quality and precision, in H2 we face blurry visions, intent and the new, sometimes questioning what goes on in H1.
  • H1 delivers what we know we must deliver (known knowns),  H2 searches for new things to do that we do not know yet, is in exploration mode, does not even know where to dig (known/unknown unknowns).
  • H1 is solution focused, H2 looks for new problems, thank you!
  • Work in H1 is much more often linear (going forward), work in H2 deals with going back and forth all the time and as such is highly non linear. Especially going back is not humanities favored direction.

Given all this, I am pretty sure, the main reason, Innovation and finding the new is hard for us for a very simple reason at the core: Which is that in H1 we know and in H2 we don’t. That means, on the lookout for new things, we are initially dumb, stupid. We don’t know the subject matter, we need to ask other experts, sometimes we don’t even know what to ask. And while being dumb is one thing, having to expose it as a means to be able to learn is something else altogether. We do not love this situation and the feeling of it. (I know.) The problem is: If we do not endure this moment in time, we will never find the valuable, new thing to do. (I also know this 😉 In the beginning we will be dumb.

Even if we find a way that looks promising, we don’t know how promising it is, yet. Meanwhile our colleagues roll out feature by feature – machine mode – of which they know (?) they are needed and contribute value and wealth.

People, looking for new products, must feel comfortable with stupidophobia management at least. Full of lust they need to commit to being stupid, know nothing, learn slowly and be proud of it. I guess this is a situation not everybody loves and embraces and we should not force everyone into this situation.

Sadly, stupidophobia, transposed to the organizational level, makes the problem even bigger: People with the responsibility to find new products will have to defend their situational stupidity because they live in a world that does not understand that this is part of the task. They live in a world that does not understand the nature of their work. Dialogs like the following will happen and not often result in happiness on both sides:

“Do we know if and when it will work?” “Umm, no!” “Exactly when will we know?” “We don’t really know, we are in research.” “Do we have a businessplan yet?” “Uh, yes, but we guessed the assumptions.” – go on as you wish.

Now, no one here is stupid, the situation is just lacking understanding of what is going on, over on the other ‘side’.

“Processes” may help to feel better and might build some scaffolding that signals more certainty to those who need that.  Learning Accounting in Lean Startup helps structure the learning that is going on. Hypotheses based work, aka the scientific principle, helps to gain overview of the learning. The art will be to counter stupidophobia as much as we do not stifle learning and creativity with too much process and need for repeatability (but still survive in the enterprise). In fact, with colleagues I am working on early signals in the process of learning right now.

sho shin

sho shin

In fewer words: Without first being stupid, we won’t discover the new values. Design Thinking has found a nice framing for for this:  “Embrace a beginner’s mind set”. (Now that does not sound stupid). Zen calls this sho shin, coupled with the even nicer statement that

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” (Suzuki, Shunryu) 

My personal experience is that despite all these nice words, the feeling to deliver yourself to such a situation remains the same. Scientists also know this feeling. It happens when hypotheses are invalidated and new models need to be found, possibly far far away from the existing ones. This is how new knowledge is generated, it is called adductive logic. Richard Feynman, often a man of simple words, said:

“In the beginning, you take a guess.”

Credits: The core idea behind this post comes from the brilliant Nilofer Merchant, who can write and talk on this much better than me.


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