[Quote] Over-specialize, and you breed in weakness

It's tempting for innovators to fall prey to the lure of "innovation orthodoxy." Keep up the disciplined self-awareness to avoid it!

[Quote] Over-specialize, and you breed in weakness

“Over-specialize, and you breed in weakness.

It's slow death.”

Ghost in the Shell (1995) movie

The point for innovation: Beware "innovation orthodoxy"

Innovators often think of themselves as multi-skilled, e.g., as "T-shaped" people (with one core skill where they go deep and several others where they can go broad, across the top of the "T"). Ambitious teams even talk about "M-shaped" people (with multiple core skillsets).

But despite that self-perception, teams actually face a push toward specialization and hard limits on their ability to generalize once you zoom out a bit.

For example, Teams like to work efficiently and be clear on "how things are done around here," after all. Having a branded team toolkit can help. More broadly, teams have limited payroll. Also, hiring those multi-skilled ("T-shaped/ M-shaped") members already mentioned is actually an acknowledgement that teams can't have every competency in-house and must make tradeoffs. Finally, and most broadly, most teams specialize in a particular kind of innovation work: Lean Startup, Human-centered Design, Startup Accelerators, you name it. Few teams can tackle them all. Teams specialize

In general, that's fine. There is a pendulum that swings between specialization and generalization, and it swings back and forth over time and among different teams.

But sadly, the pendulum swings out of balance sadly often. "Innovation orthodoxy" results.

All of a sudden, team members not only focus on a certain toolkit like Design Thinking or Lean Startup. But instead, they turn it into a quasi-religion, insisting that it somehow is the right and best way and that its practitioners are the true kind of innovators.

They might still pay lip service to a need for other skills and ways of doing things. But somehow, they never end up acting on those other competencies. And in unguarded moments, true (conscious or subconscious) feelings slip out, e.g., when they describe who truly is critical for "front-end" innovation, who actually is open-minded and clear-eyed, etc. Sometimes, the sentiment doesn't even need to show up in words. I personally faced several situations in which just wearing certain clothes (blue shirt wearers are squares!) or having a certain background (oooh, 6Sigma? Bad news bears!) firmly placed me in the "out-crowd," while the "in-crowd" preened at their own superiority.

Of course, every human tribe has its rituals and signs of belonging. But losing sight of that fact that there are other ways than your current one is particularly dangerous in innovation. We face a particularly broad range of challenges and need to look for solutions wherever they happen to exist.

I've found "innovation orthodoxy" to be a major predictor of "innovation theater" and inhibitor of credibility.

So ask yourselves ... and ask outsiders whose take you trust: Might you have fallen prey to innovation orthodoxy?


Ghost in the Shell

Screenplay by Kazunori Itō

Shochiku (1995)

Watch on Amazon prime video

Further reading

Itō, K. (1995). Ghost in the Shell: Shochiku. Retrieved 2023-09-24 from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113568/