Innovation’s Holy Grail

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Under Steve Jobs, Apple became what by almost all accounts has been the most successfully innovative company in the world.  Now Apple faces what may be an even more daunting challenge: continuing with that innovation success without Steve Jobs.

Isn’t that innovation’s Holy Grail? Isn’t that what the whole field of innovation is trying to figure out: how to build an organization that can produce the kind of success of an Apple…without having a world class genius at the helm? Obviously, there aren’t enough Steve Jobs to go around and what few there are, are not easily recognized in advance. Yet, what company wouldn’t love to become the next Apple?

It’s a challenge that Apple and Jobs himself anticipated. Some three years ago the highly regarded Dean of Yale’s School of Management, Joel Podolny was recruited to launch and lead Apple University. It was reportedly envisioned as a strategy to somehow institutionalize Jobs ability to innovate and assure that Apple continues to reflect his brilliance.

One thing that is likely to continue at Apple is the company’s renowned secrecy. So even if Apple meets that challenge it will probably not disclose exactly how, and in any case it will take some time to judge its success or failure. So in the meantime I have some hunches as to how Podolny and Apple are proceeding.


This is probably the easiest piece for Apple: continuing Job’s commitment to innovation. To be world class at innovation, an organization must want to be…intensely, consistently and at the highest levels. A great many organizations are unwilling to truly make that commitment. Maintaining current success takes priority over innovation for the future; experimentation is discouraged, risk is something to avoid. It takes genuine courage and trust and faith to play the innovation game. Given its history and the inspiration of Steve Jobs, Apple will probably continue to have a greater commitment than most.

People Over Process

Steve Jobs more than anyone personified the conviction that innovation is about people rather than process. His personal insights, his ability to discern what others missed and connect the dots in unique ways were keys to Apple’s success. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how to make innovation a predictable business process, as though it can be mapped out like a manufacturing line or sales cycle. Apple has innovation processes but they were designed to reflect and serve the genius of Jobs and others, not the other way around. Great innovation comes not from fitting people into pre-designed processes but by designing processes that can harness human brilliance. It’s a very different emphasis and no one understood this better than Steve Jobs.

Become One With the Customer

Steve Jobs had a reputation for being extremely picky about design and ease of use. He had a knack for seeing things with a customer’s eye while envisioning more than his customers ever imagined. Apple was always on the leading edge of technology but without making the technology the driver. Jobs was relentless in insisting that technology must serve the customer—simply, elegantly, beautifully. It was never just about what designers and engineers could create; it was about what customers would embrace…again a very different emphasis.

Focus on the Choices

Those less experienced in fostering innovation tend to see it as a quest for great ideas. Ideas are important but generating them is relatively easy compared to choosing and implementing them. Which ones should you pursue? Which ones are feasible? Which ones will succeed in the marketplace? How do you know? Great innovators and the not-so-great all have ideas. What distinguishes great innovators is their knack for picking great ideas, defining the outcome, developing a strategy, and knowing when to change those things. That’s all about making good choices, which I would argue is innovation’s ultimate differentiator.

Even Steve Jobs wasn’t infallible in making those choices but he was quite good, partly because he made a point of getting a lot of practice. It’s a skill we develop when we’re willing to get our hands dirty, take risks, make mistakes and carefully reflect on the inevitable reality checks we receive. We develop powerful intuitions when we’re willing to continually test them. It’s also worth noting that organizations don’t have intuitions; people do. It’s a personal skill, one that no amount of process can replace.

Under Steve Jobs, Apple was the gold standard for innovation. It’s a standard even Apple will have a hard time continuing to meet. But under Jobs, Apple proved that it’s attainable…when the commitment is there, when people and their brilliance are valued and leveraged, when you intimately understand the customer, and when you become skilled at making the right choices. How do you and your organization measure up?

Get the new Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Download a free copy at:

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Innovation Essentials: Who Do You Serve?

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I’m hard pressed to think of any innovation that benefited only its creator. It seems to me that innovation by definition must benefit someone else, or it has no real value…and by many definitions of innovation, something that fails to create value doesn’t qualify.

Edison, Ford, Jobs, Gates, Dell, Bezos. They all profited handsomely from their innovations, but by first creating value in the marketplace, by producing real benefits for their customers. Free enterprise can certainly be messy and unfair at times, but we put up with its imperfections because of the value it creates, because of the way it tends to raise everyone’s standard of living and quality of life. It produces innovation and we seem to have reached a consensus that innovation is a good thing, even when it creates some disruptions.

To be successful innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s crucial to understand who we serve and what value we create for them. Because if we can’t, we’re not likely to capture much value for ourselves either.

No, wait a minute.

Time out

It occurs to me that there have been innovations that have benefited no one but their creators, actually quite a number of them—in the financial industry. As I think about it, it’s a pretty extensive list. It includes complex financial derivatives that do more to conceal and transfer risk than manage it. It includes the commissions paid to mortgage loan writers that are designed to create an incentive for them to give loan recipients less favorable interest rates than they are qualified to receive and higher payments than they can afford. It includes creditors who systemically delay sending billing notices in order to push more people into late payment status, generating greater penalty fees.

One of the most creative “innovations” I’ve encountered is one by my own (now former) bank, which has managed to create the overdraft that isn’t really an overdraft—but still pays like one. Banks like to delay paying checks as long as possible to keep their cash reserves as high as possible, but that also delays when an account goes into overdraft status and generates substantial penalty fees. The solution: “temporarily” post checks—and charge a penalty for any overdraft that results, but don’t “permanently” post (i.e. pay) checks until later. So the bank gets to hold onto the money while still getting overdraft charges—on accounts that don’t have a negative balance! Then, when those overdraft fees push the account into negative status, charge another fee for that too. When customers complain, you can tell them it’s their own fault for not better managing their account. Perfect.

Maybe that’s why thousands are marching on Wall Street and across the U.S. these days.

Maybe they’re beginning to realize that when the whole business model rests on abusing and deceiving your own clients something is deeply flawed in the way the game’s being played.

Maybe, rather than serving the greater good, “innovation” has been co-opted by some to serve only their own narrow interests and no one else’s—not even their customers.

Maybe that failure to create any real value is why the financial system collapsed so spectacularly.

Maybe that’s why folks are so angry.


Who do you serve?

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Innovation Essentials: Which Direction is Your Flywheel Turning?

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In his acclaimed bestseller, Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about what he calls the “Flywheel Effect.” He describes how small actions and decisions, made over a period of time, add up to sustained momentum and success for great companies—like small nudges building momentum on a flywheel. I agree and riffing on his metaphor, I would add that our flywheel can be turning in either direction. It’s possible that a series of seemingly small decisions and incremental actions can gradually undermine our success. So the key question becomes: Which direction is your flywheel turning?

As companies and as individuals, it’s easy to get lulled into habits that we don’t even realize we have—some productive, some counterproductive—and what was productive yesterday can become counterproductive tomorrow. Every industry has its orthodoxies and assumptions about how to do business and what brings success. As individuals, we acquire experience and expertise and gradually adopt personal assumptions—often without even realizing we’re doing it. Those assumptions produce a myriad of small incremental choices that can either support of undermine our capacity to innovate.

Inside any successful organization, many things are working or it wouldn’t be a going concern. So it’s not surprising that people will want to sustain that success. Yet, that simple impulse to keep what’s working can produce small incremental decisions that can slow or halt innovation. Any change in business processes may be seen as a potential danger. A new idea that doesn’t quite fit with prior assumptions is quickly rejected. Mistakes are seen as problems that must be fixed in order to restore the smooth functioning of the enterprise. Simply expecting everyone to follow established business processes and procedures can gradually become a drag on the organizations ability to adapt and stay nimble. It’s all very logical and well-intended but the effect is to resist any substantial change, gradually eroding the capacity in innovate—even actively opposing it.

Innovative companies understand this and take steps to overcome it. They create proactive feedback loops that continually monitor the effectiveness of business processes. They continually track their customers and competitors to quickly detect signals that may point to needed changes. Thoughtful experimentation is encouraged, not only as a way to test new ideas, but to maintain the organization’s proficiency at testing and implementing new ideas. There’s an awareness of the need to promote a collective mindset that expects to make continual adjustments, rather than simply protect what’s working.

There’s an interesting paradox here. The more strenuously we strive to preserve our success…the more we do what we already know will work…the more we look for confirmation and reinforcement of what we believe…the more momentum we create in a very anti-innovation direction.

It’s by letting go of that need to be right and have certainty, by being willing to reexamine our assumption and beliefs, that we build momentum in favor of innovation. The more we’re willing to explore new possibilities…the more actively we look for exceptions that might expose flaws…the more we consider a variety of interpretations…the more we seek to discover new insights…the more momentum we create in support of innovation.

Some of us need to stop and reverse what has become our anti-innovation flywheel. For others the challenge is to build more innovation momentum. And what’s essential in both cases is that we’re clear about which direction we’re pushing.

Get the new Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Download a free copy at:

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Innovation Essentials: Think Emergent

Innovation is an inherently emergent process. It’s not just about where we want to end up; it’s highly dependent on where we are. Where we begin has a profound impact on where we can go.

For some four decades now, chaos theory and the science of complexity have had a growing influence on diverse fields ranging from weather forecasting to organizational development, and from astrophysics to network theory to leadership. The crucial importance of emergence, or what is often called “dependence on initial conditions” is one of the key characteristics of complex systems. And so it is with innovation.

The universe is emergent. Galaxies and stars and planets formed based on prior conditions; they didn’t just appear. Life is emergent; it doesn’t just happen. Certain conditions need to be present for it to occur and survive and flourish. It has continuity; dogs give birth to puppies, not kittens. And, each of our lives is emergent. Where we’ve been before to a significant degree determines where we are able to go, what limits and opportunities we face.

Successful innovators understand the importance of emergence. They realize that having a compelling vision is not very helpful if we can’t somehow connect it to current realities and find a way to get from here to there. This is especially true of successful entrepreneurs. They know they need more than a great idea; they need to figure out how to make that idea real. That may require capital, expertise, market research and finding the right people. It may also require a strong stomach and more than a little staying power to survive the inevitable setbacks and disappointments. Entrepreneurs ask very pragmatic questions like: Who will value this new offering and what are they willing to pay? What should the business model be in order to capture some of the value we create?

A smart early stage investor takes emergence into account, evaluating not just how good an idea may be, but how feasible it may be, at what cost, in what time frame, and whether the right people are in place to make it happen. “Can you get there?” is just as important as, “Where do you want to go?” The lion’s share of early stage investment is emergent, focusing on the leading edge of technology and trying to exploit what is newly possible without pushing too far too fast.

Innovative companies challenge themselves but only so far. Even a company like Apple is cautious about not straying too fare from its main competencies and the state of the art. Steve Jobs has explained that the idea of an iPad preceded the iPod, but it was held back because of how they saw the critical factors of its success emerging, both in terms of the technology and the market. Steve Jobs felt that the iPod should come first. Judging by the success of both products, apparently he was right.

It was Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things.” When we strive to innovate, we need to be pushing the envelope and breaking new ground. But we also need to be highly sensitive to initial conditions, so that our ideas can emerge successfully.

Get the new Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Download a free copy at:

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Innovation Essentials: Persistence is Overrated

There’s a prevalent and long-perpetuated myth about innovators, that they are persistent; they don’t give up. Renowned innovators like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison have even said it of themselves, crediting their success in part on their persistence. But it’s at best a poor choice of words and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what innovation entails, even by some of its best practitioners.

I recently sat on a panel of innovation experts and entrepreneurs that included a R & D executive with one of the largest medical technology companies in the world. When asked what she looked for when she hired someone, one of the first things she mentioned was persistence, giving it considerable emphasis.

I couldn’t resist disagreeing with her and using Edison as my example. We’ve all heard the stories of how Edison and his team of engineers tried hundreds, by some accounts more than a thousand, materials before finding one that would work as the filament in his electric light bulb. So, the argument goes, he succeeded because he persisted. It’s utterly misleading. (Not the story, the takeaway.) If Edison and his colleagues had chosen one material that they particularly favored and spent all their time trying to make it work, that would have been persistent—not very bright, but persistent. They achieved success because they were willing to experiment and fail over and over and over again, in order to discover the solution they needed.

What Edison did throughout his career was systematically lead his team to failure upon failure upon failure…almost ad infinitum, becoming immensely wealthy as a result. Edison’s most important invention may have been modern research and development itself, and the key principle behind it is not persistence but rather systematic experimentation.

Simply being persistent is the antithesis of innovation. Webster’s defines persist as, “to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity or warning.” That’s not what innovators do! Innovators don’t just keep their heads down and refuse to take, “No,” for an answer; they pick up on the. “No’s,” quickly and try an alternative approach. They constantly adjust and revise and adapt in order to reach the breakthroughs they need.

I’m not saying that persistence has no value. There are times when it can be an admirable quality. What I’m saying is that persistence rarely leads to successful innovation unless it’s coupled with the exploration of multiple options, and it’s that willingness to explore and experiment that most distinguishes great innovators, not their persistence.

The medtech executive was quick to jump in and say that yes, of course she understood the difference and wanted people who knew how to find solutions and stay flexible in their thinking. I assured her that I knew that she knew that’s what she meant. (Though I think she was still annoyed with me.)

The problem with persistence is that it can just as easily be a hindrance as an advantage. It’s entirely possible to be persistently wrong. By many accounts, both Ford and Edison could be quite stubborn at times and not always in productive ways. It may be that their confusion over the role persistence played in their own success made them prey to this common character flaw. For some reason we frequently credit persistence for our success when what we should be crediting is courage and risk taking and creativity. It’s a vastly different approach.

The next time you face a challenge—any challenge—you may need to be persistent, but you will almost certainly need to be flexible and creative and willing to consider a variety of approaches if you want the best outcome. That’s what innovators do (despite what they may sometimes say).

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Mindset: Innovation’s Third Way

What’s your theory of personal innovation?

Do you believe that some of us are simply born to be creative and innovative and some not—that it’s a personality trait or perhaps some largely innate talent? Or, do you believe that we’re all innovative, just in different ways—that everyone is an innovator; we just approach it differently?

The first theory suggests that if you want innovators on your team or in your organization, you need to go find them, kind of like recruiting star athletes or brilliant academics. It’s a prevalent view but one that’s not supported by the research. We know there are all sorts of strategies and facilitation techniques like Creative Problem Solving that can take any group of people and make them dramatically more creative and innovative—so the ability to innovate can’t be just innate. Research with twins suggests that genetics plays only a relatively minor role in someone’s creativity and family influence is negligible.

The second theory is in keeping with the work of Educational Psychologist Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. It’s consistent with the assumptions behind the popular StrengthsFinder and the Kirton Adpator Innovator (KAI) assessment that has long been used to map where folks may fall along a presumed continuum of innovation preferences. This approach is less threatening and more politically correct but it just doesn’t square with our experience. Cleary some people are more adaptable, more willing to change, more open to new ideas, and yes more creative than others.

There’s a radical difference between Michael Jordan’s level of play on a basketball court, and mine (really radical). It would be laughable for me to argue that we just have different styles in how we approach the game. That same variability occurs in people’s tendency to innovate. (Think Steve Jobs.) It’s not just a question of style. We’ve all observed people who really have locked in and resist change. We also see that what emerges from a well-facilitated ideation session is measurably more creative, not just different.

So, if our tendency to innovate is neither a personal gift nor a universal trait, what’s left? Thankfully, this is a false dilemma. There’s a third option: mindset. It’s consistent with other less-famous work in educational psychology, although it’s drawing increasing attention: the work of Stanford Educational Psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck has found that the way students believe their own heads work has a profound affect on their academic performance…often overwhelming factors like IQ and academic ability.

In our work, we’ve taken a similar approach to the capacity to innovate. Our working assumptions (which are supported by the research) are that 1) everyone has the fundamental ability to be innovative, and 2) not everyone has exploited these capabilities to the same degree. So on one hand we recognize everyone’s ability to contribute to innovation and at the same time we account for the fact that some of us are innovation Michael Jordans, and (sorry, but) some of us are not.

What most distinguishes the innovation high performers from the less innovative is not some indiscernible secret sauce of mental faculties. What distinguishes them is their mindset. That is to say: their attitudes, assumptions and beliefs—their mental models—about how the world works. These mental models are often subconscious. Yet they can have a huge impact on someone’s behavior and therefore how well they perform—and innovate.

Those first two theories of personal innovation both have the same limitation. They leave us with no where to go. If your ability to innovate is some innate personality trait, there’s nothing you can do to change it. If you have the same ability to innovate as everyone else and you’re just different in how you approach it, you have little incentive to change.

The beauty of a mindset approach is that it gives us some powerful developmental options. Creative Problem Solving and similar facilitation techniques are rarely described this way, but they’re so effective because they shift the mindset of those who are participating. They invite people to adopt a set of working assumptions and attitudes that have been demonstrated to enhance creativity.

Our mindset is a product of our choices. Our personal collection of beliefs is something that every one of us has the power to change, and in ways that can enhance our capacity to innovate. By identifying where we are and the key adjustments we need to make, every one of us has the potential to become the next Steve Jobs…when we’re willing to change our mental models.

Imagine what you might accomplish with your team, your organization, or for that matter with yourself, by understanding how to shift your mindset and choose to be more innovative.

Contact us for a free white paper on how to get started, with the Stauffer Iterative Thinking Assessment at

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World Class Innovator? Unfortunately.

Pop Quiz: Name one of the most innovative organizations in the world, one that:

1)      Has a global reach, touching nearly every continent.

2)      Employs people with a diverse range of ethnicities and citizenships

3)      Is highly skilled at experimentation at all levels of the organization

4)      Is a proficient learning organization, systematically disseminating what it learns from its many experiments throughout the organization, making constant and rapid adjustments to maintain and enhance its effectiveness

5)      Is non-government and non-profit

6)      Has a vision so clear and compelling that most of the people who work for it are highly committed volunteers, who in many cases have sacrificed their lives

Give up?

Or, you may have guessed—if only because of the timing of this post—that I’m talking about Al Qaeda. I’m speaking not out of admiration but concern. What Al Qaeda has done and what it stands for is utterly abhorrent—and is far removed from the spirit of innovation. Yet it has mastered the art of organizational innovation to a degree that a great many organizations…no make that most organizations…have yet to match. It truly is an agile organization, resilient, creative and nimble…which is why it has posed such a grave threat.

Looking for ROI? Al Qaeda spent millions planning and executing 9-11. The economic, military and security costs to us are in the trillions and still counting. When your product is terror, death and destruction, that’s unfortunately a phenomenal rate of return. Product innovation? Ten years ago, who had heard of an improvised explosive device (IED)? Competitive advantage? In intelligence, technology and military deployments, we’ve surely spent more to achieve each death of an insurgent or terrorist leader than Al Qaeda spent on 9-11. That’s a massive ongoing cost benefit. We’ve been making progress in the war on terrorism, but at a staggering toll in life, limbs and treasure.

How should we respond? The 9-11 Commission Report said,

“It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing the exercise of imagination.”

In other words, we need to fight innovation with innovation. We need to get just as creative as the enemy we face. That’s what our military has been doing—reinventing the way it wages war. Airport security has certainly changed and continues to evolve.

Today marks the ten year anniversary of the day after 9-11, the day when you could say we began our response to those tragic events. We now live in a world in which not only our economic future, but our future security rests in large part on our creativity, our capacity to innovate, and that’s not something that has been a significant part of our national dialogue. It’s yet another reason why strengthening our competence as innovators is such an imperative.

Get the new Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Download a free copy at:

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Innovation Case Study: Sliced Bread

It’s only the inexperienced innovator who believes the adage: Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, it’s long been a metaphor about the value of innovation, and it implies an ease of acceptance of new ideas that doesn’t square with reality…as a great many inventors have learned.

Another adage: “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” implies a similar kind of automatic acceptance that may have been true of consumers, but not bakeries. There was actually considerable resistance and skepticism of the new invention. Bakeries thought sliced bread would grow stale more quickly, and that uniformly thin slices might make customers more efficient in how they consumed bread—reducing bread sales. To some, it sounded so trivial and unnecessary. (Is hand slicing bread really that much work for anyone anyway?)

It was a friend of the bread slicing machine’s inventor, a friend who owned a bakery in Chillicothe,Missouri, who first gave the new bread slicing machine a try. That was 1928 and within five years sales of sliced bread exceeded sales of un-sliced bread. It turned out that because it was already sliced, consumers tended to eat more bread more frequently, increasing not only bread sales but sales of jam, and boosting sales of another new invention, the automatic pop-up toaster. The whole bread ecosystem shifted.

Sliced bread even encountered regulatory resistance when in 1943 it was banned by the federal government. That’s right, banned…as a wartime conservation measure. This was supposedly because it required a heavier wrapper than un-sliced bread amid tight supplies of waxed paper. Compliance was predictably uneven and the ban was lifted within just a few months.

As someone who embraces innovation, it pains me to say it but apparently some things don’t change, at least not very much. Winning acceptance of any new idea is far from automatic. Those who are in a position to enable or obstruct an innovation often stand in the way, sometimes predicting dire consequences, even when the end-user is destined to embrace it. And, there’s always the risk of government interference despite acceptance in the marketplace.

When we’re tempted to think of some new idea as, “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” we should realize that that thing we’re referring to may in fact be not only the greatest ‘convenience” for consumers, but also the greatest “challenge” for us, and the greatest perceived “threat” by others.

It makes me wonder how many other great innovations are languishing somewhere because the innovator wasn’t able to overcome that initial resistance and find the acceptance waiting on the other side. If someone ever finds a fool-proof way to gain timely acceptance of great new ideas, that might be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Get the new Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Download a free copy at:

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Innovation Essentials: Testing Our Intuitions

Great innovations are often based on powerful intuitions, but we all know examples of someone thinking they have a great intuition and being misguided. So where does intuition fit into innovation and how do we know when we can rely on it?

You’ve no doubt heard the long-running debate: Should we trust our intuitions, or distrust them? On one side, we hear that top executives have developed good intuitions, that they make good decisions by “going with their gut.” We’re told that when a woman feels uncomfortable about a stranger approaching her on the street, she should “trust her intuitions.”

On the other side, we’re reminded of all the many ways we can be mistaken, and so we’re cautioned not to trust our intuitions, and always look at the evidence, the data instead. Personally, I think the whole conversation tends to miss the mark. The important question isn’t whether or not we should trust our intuitions, but rather: How can we test our intuitions to determine how reliable they are? Which is to say: How can we use data and experience to enhance our intuitions?

We should treat an intuition as exactly what it is: a hunch, a feeling, a hypothesis, an idea, a question. Then, instead of assuming we already have the answer to that question, we need to figure out how to get an answer. We need to explore and experiment. An intuition is an important starting point. Without one, we have nothing to test. But the key is to gather feedback that will tell us when our intuitions are useful and when they’re not.

Dan Ariely, a Behavioral Economist at MIT and the author of Predictably Irrational gave a TED talk in which he made this point as eloquently as I’ve ever heard it made. (If a little more than 16 minutes is more time than you can spare, just watch the first two minutes and jump to 14:00 minutes in and watch the last two minutes or so and you’ll get the gist of it.) Ariely offers a number of examples of misguided intuitions and the misfortunes they can cause.

In their book The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chambris and Daniel Simons take this thinking even further and talk about how misguided we are in our intuitions about the reliability of our intuitions. They note that the simple assumption that what we look at is what we see, is often untrue. We routinely fail to see things that are in our field of vision…and at the same time we fail to notice that we have failed to notice them. Because we don’t receive any feedback that tells us our intuition is wrong, we continue to hold the same intuition. (Unless for example what we fail to see is another car or a pedestrian and we hit it, which is partly their point.)

A willingness to test their intuitions is one of the things that most distinguishes accomplished innovators. They have the courage to pursue their intuitions but they don’t just run with them and assume the best. They probe for flaws and contrary data. Instead of assuming that they have dreamed up something brilliant, they want to find out just how good an idea it may be. So they gather feedback and check themselves. They seek input and perspectives and impressions from others.

The best innovators continually test their intuitions—and revise those intuitions based on that feedback. It’s by repeating this cycle of generating and testing new ideas, of iterating their thinking, that they become more proficient at producing powerful and reliable intuitions. The paradox is that it’s by questioning and probing our intuitions—not just trusting them—that we enhance those intuitions over time…and that produces intuitions that are more trustworthy.

When we have a promising intuition, it’s important to value it enough to pursue it, while maintaining enough skepticism to identify its shortcomings, so we can learn how to make it even better.

Get the new Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Download a free copy at:

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The Innovation Killer: “I’ve got mine!”

These are certainly uncertain times…economically, politically, and for many very personally. The economic crisis that hit some three years ago (and was of course far longer in the making) is still very much with us. The deliberations of the U.S. Congress have taken on the tone of a bitter divorce—with about the same level of altruism. Europeans are rioting and looting. Global stock markets are in broad retreat. If there was ever a time when we need dramatic innovation, this is surely such a time. And yet, there may be no better example of how not to innovate than the current state of American politics.

I’m not talking about iPads or new drug therapies or clean energy. That kind of innovation could help, but what we need to innovate most urgently is the way we address our problems and make the tough choices we face. So far, I’d score us quite low on that measure of innovation and one reason is that so many of us—and especially our leaders—seem to be focused on what we’re not willing to do, instead of what we are.

The unspoken assertion that screams from the headlines is one of the most universal obstacles to innovation: I’ve got mine.

For some, it’s the public payments received for welfare or retirement or healthcare. For others, it’s historically high incomes on which they’re unwilling to pay so much as another nickel in taxes. Or, it’s subsidized air travel to small communities, or generous pubic pensions,  or lifelong health care for veterans, or…or…or… It’s a long list, and I’m not commenting on the merits of any of it, only noting how jealously every item on it is being protected by someone. Like a couple feuding over family finances, we argue about whether the problem is too much spending or too little income. While any dispassionate observer can see that it’s both.

An 8-year-old without a calculator can figure out that the numbers don’t add up, that something—or actually many things—have to change. And the size of the bite anyone must accept of course gets smaller the more that everyone is willing to make some concessions. But that sense of having a collective stake in a better future is lost in a fevered rush to protect what we insist on keeping.

And let’s not let the private sector off the hook. Even as corporate profits have risen dramatically and created bulging balance sheets, relatively few jobs are being created, while tax subsidies are fiercely defended. Clearly, keeping what’s “mine” is a higher priority among what we’re told are the “job creators” than encouraging broader prosperity.

Innovation comes at a price that apparently many have been unwilling to pay. (Although, polls show that much of the public is more willing to negotiate concessions than some of their leaders are.) There’s always a risk, when floating any innovative idea, that it will crash against the rocky shores of personal fiefdoms, entrenched power bases and cronyism, both public and private. The often intense resistance to anything that might require real change often comes down to the same silent refrain: I’ve got mine. Don’t mess with it. It’s a stance that can stop innovation dead in its tracks.

Innovation inevitably creates losses as well as gains. It frequently involves giving something up in order to create something better. It takes courage and sacrifice and lately both seem to be in short supply. Where’s the big picture, the sense of the common good, the willingness to sacrifice for a better future, the vision of what we can accomplish together, the sense of a shared destiny? Drowned out, it appears, by the same persistent cry: I’ve got mine.

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