Innovation Essentials: Knowledge as Answers or Possibilities?

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What’s your personal theory of knowledge? Is it something that gives you answers or possibilities? Of course, the short answer is, “Yes.” But if you had to choose, if you had to state a preference, I suspect you could, and for many it would be: answers. Not that most of us have given this a great deal of thought. It’s what’s known as an implicit theory, a largely subconscious belief, but one that nonetheless impacts how we think and behave—and how well we innovate.

We’ve been conditioned to think of our knowledge as predominantly a source of answers, answers to all sorts of questions, whether the topic is pop culture trivia or basic arithmetic, world history or how to clone cells. It’s a pairing that has been deeply ingrained into our subconscious by the way we’ve been educated. Whenever we learned something in school we were tested with a list of questions. If we knew the answers, we had acquired that bit of knowledge. If we didn’t know the answers, we had not. Hence:

          Answers = Knowledge

          No Answers or Wrong Answer = No Knowledge.

So we make a point of collecting lots of answers.

This simple matching is one of the greatest impediments to innovation. It leads us to believe that every question has one correct answer, so any other options must be wrong. It prompts us to think that when we have the correct answer, we don’t need to go any further because we already know what we need to know. It implies that if we change an answer then the previous one must have been wrong.

This interferes with innovation on many levels. An “answer mindset” explains the widely observed tendency of people with a lot of expertise to find it difficult to innovate within their field—because that often requires changing the answers. It’s why entire industries can become trapped by their own orthodoxies about how their business is supposed to work. (Think of the music recording business not so long ago.) It’s why new ideas are so often met with reflexive resistance: “That’s not the right answer.” And it’s why the first thing that any skilled facilitator does when leading an ideation session is lay down some ground rules designed to prevent people from shooting down new ideas like so many clay pigeons…because they sound like wrong answers.

It’s seems so logical to use our knowledge to determine what won’t work, by sorting the right from the wrong answers. It’s a strategy that works the vast majority of the time (partly because it’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy). But it’s among that small number of exceptions that innovation is born.

An “answer mindset” often creates conflict. When we believe that our knowledge is comprised of answers and we disagree with someone (when they give different answers) we conclude that someone has to be wrong (them). So we fall into arguments, undermining collaboration, teamwork, and the pursuit of a common purpose. Sound familiar?

Innovation requires that we make the subtle but very powerful shift away from thinking of knowledge as answers and instead think of it as possibilities, things we know that could work, options we can pursue, ideas worth investigating, a starting point on the path to greater insight. Seen this way, our knowledge becomes a broad deep pool of such possibilities, a truly high value asset without the downside problems that I’ve described.

It’s a more humble way of applying our knowledge, one that recognizes both its value and its limitations. It positions our knowledge as something that we think might work instead of something we already know will work. It allows us to more readily consider alternative perspectives and interpretations and ideas. It keeps us open to revising and updating all those answers that we’ve collected…and isn’t that what innovation is all about?

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