Innovation For Dummies
Why Being Too Smart Isn’t Too Smart
The infinitely quotable—and really smart—Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
So here’s a question for you: Are you smart enough to play dumb for awhile?
With that question in mind, see if any of these comments sound familiar:
- “Our business is more complicated than other businesses.”
- “Our products are regulated…must be in compliance…are more sophisticated…and so what you don’t understand is…”
- “That’s not how ______is done. We can’t make money that way.”
- “Our technology won’t let us do that.”
- “That’s not what our customers need…want…will buy…”
My bet is that you’ve heard things like this before, coming from the most seasoned and arguably smartest experts in your organization. You know, the ones who are unwilling to play dumb or worse—be open to other non “expert” views.
Here’s the rub: Based on my experience, your experts probably won’t lead the charge on innovating your company or industry. This means that physicians won’t revolutionize health care, professors won’t shift the way colleges teach, and your financial advisor won’t be coming up with a cheaper or easier-to-understand product or service anytime soon.
They think they know what your organization needs to do to stay ahead of the competition—and the changing customers needs—but they probably don’t.
Here’s what I’ve learned
After two decades of creating new products and services, I now recognize “expert” language as a symptom of unenlightened—often frightened—leadership. I’ve heard this language in every mature industry, and it always comes from an executive who is holding on to what used to work.
The good news? Stubborn, rigid, expert thinking creates infinite possibilities for naïve dolts (like me) who don’t share it. Or as the now famous Apple commercial said, “because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
The “crazy ones” are rarely considered experts by the “real” experts in the industry they are challenging. That’s why “crazy” is often how established competitors (like Blockbuster Video) describe the initial success of new competitors (like NetFlix) who enter a field where they have little or no background, do things differently, and end up owning the market. You can find examples ranging from Amazon to Zappos.
Crazy people are now challenging how we think about health care, legal services, accounting, academics, insurance, banking, energy, publishing…and yet the experts remain set in their ways, which is as understandable as it is dangerous.
Stop for a second. Do you remember someone getting really, really angry about an innovative new idea in a recent company meeting? Was it fear of change or expertise that was getting in his way? Perhaps it was both.
Experts achieve their status because they have shown that their way of solving a problem works well. And that’s great. The challenge, though, is they get set in their ways. It is rare to find one who changes his approach.
“It’s worked, as my track record proves. Why should I alter anything?”
The answer boils down to this: Things change.
And things are changing faster and faster. So what is an enlightened expert or leader to do? Here are three simple and effective ideas:
- Stop hiring experts from your industry. They are likely to see things as your people do. Instead, look for people with a specific problem-solving ability. For example, if you are faced with disintermediation issues—and all service companies are—look for experts who have tackled disintermediation. It’s likely better that they know nothing about accounting, lawyering or whatever your business is because it will enable them to solve your problem and challenge your paradigms.
- Engage your young people. Your newest hires and the youngest people aren’t set in their ways. They will view things differently. Ask them what do they see, when viewing your biggest challenges.
- Play war games. Put a team of your smartest people together and give them a “simple” challenge: “If you were starting from scratch, how would you make our company irrelevant?” Make sure you include outside experts and younger people in the exercise. Not only will this identify previously unforeseen threats—threats your “experts” will invariably dismiss—but also opportunities.
Things change, and your organization must as well. If you’re smart enough to play dumb for awhile, this shouldn’t be a problem.