[Leadership laws] The innovation law of the guide to uncharted waters

To be IN control of innovation efforts, leaders must LET GO of it.

[Leadership laws] The innovation law of the guide to uncharted waters
Innovation leaders' job is to find and chart the answer, not to know it already

The Innovation Law of the Guide to Uncharted Waters

Innovation leaders must let go of the urge “to know the answer.” Paradoxically, they lead best if they can embrace discovering it alongside their teams.

Quick description

Professionals are terrible at "not knowing"

The most fascinating lesson I've learned about psychology? People are wrong, but they are darn sure about it. Prof. Jonathan Levav first taught me this in a way I accepted and remembered.

Kids are pretty good at it.

But adults are bad.

The more education we have, the worse we get, as "knowing" becomes part of our self-image.

People who think of themselves as "rational" or "objective" totally suck at it. They are just as bad as everyone else. Their self-image just can't handle it, and their brain causes them blindspots that keep them from having to face it.

MBAs are terrible at it (says me with an MBA).

Executives are the worst, since their job also demands a habit of "knowing the answer."

Innovation work means "not knowing"

And yet, the whole point of significant innovation (call it transformational or any other name) is that – we – don't – know.

If we did know the answer, there would simply be a "right" and a "wrong" decision. We'd choose the right one, invest big and fast and move on to something else.

This is what Steve Blank, godfather of modern innovation calls getting out of the building, as in: "There are no answers inside the building. You must get out of the building to find them" (i.e., learn from users).

We need a true beginner's mindset to unearth what works out in the field.

It's honestly hard for leaders "not to know"

I do actually appreciate the difficulty for leaders to accept "not knowing."

Even if their ego can handle it, their habits are tuned to "knowing." They have to break their entire way of operating.

One of the funnest episodes where I experienced this was when my team's user group included CEOs and board of directors members:

I particularly remember interviewing one Board member. Tall, imposing, nice enough but with an edge of steel in his demeanor, he lumbered into our interview. We started asking the kind of open questions that are the hallmark of design research. Quickly, annoyance crossed his face. He flipped our questions back to us: "Well what is this already?" And, patiently, my co-interviewer replied "I don't know. What do you think it is?"

This pattern repeated a few more times. But then, our interviewee suddenly opened up his entire demeanor and expression–one second to the next. He had understood that he, in his role as user (not executive), was our expert, that we truly cared about his opinions, and that there was no "right answer." He took a breath, settled into thinking about the question and offered fantastic, insightful, humor-filled answers for the rest of the conversation.

I credit this executive highly for his introspection and willingness to change his approach rather than demanding it of us. But even for him, it took a conscious choice.

How to apply the law

Leaders must redefine their purpose, if it isn't "to know"

What should leaders do instead then?

Do they still matter?

Yes, just in a new way.

The expertise that executives have built in both long-term planning and in decision-making still serves them in innovation. It just comes to life in a new way:

  • Set a stable vision. Then be flexible about the way: We still need leaders to know the "north star;" to know what success looks like, and where we can accept different ways to reach it if the original way doesn't work. This is just like a guide in uncharted waters. Maybe your ship encounters a reef or tough weather and can't take its charted course. But even then, the guide still knows where to head and whether, where, and how best to adapt later so your ship still reaches safe harbor.
  • Be the team's subject expert in decision making: Because (just about) everything is possible in innovation, most individual choices matter less than in operational contexts. There are many ways to be "right," just like a ship can reach many beautiful destinations. Choosing one direction over another simply determines which amazing end point you might reach. At the same time, deciding and doing so consistently is critical. A ship crew that steers toward the storm but does not decide to change course will default to steering right into the tempest. A ship crew that decides where to head but keeps changing course may simply go in circles, never arriving anywhere. And a captain who decides erratically slows down his or her crew because the crew can never understand the rationale behind decisions, let alone internalize it and act in its spirit independently, without being told so explicitly. Trustworthy decisions matter, even when the team suspects that you may not know the answer either. Someone needs to make the call. Might as well be the person who has trained for years to make good decisions.
  • Create a great interface for decision-making: Safi Bahcall points out a special case of good decision-making in innovation in his excellent book Loonshots. Some leaders, he describes, fall prey to the "Moses Complex." They feel like "they come down from the mountain with some god's eternal law." What they should do instead though, is to ensure that decisions involve input from the right kinds of people and that the interactions occur in a way that helps the team move toward great answers. It's like "tending a garden." You pull up the weeds. You plant plants where they will thrive. But you don't try to force them to grow.


Further reading

Bahcall, S. (2019). Loonshots. St. Martin’s Press. https://books.google.com/books/about/Loonshots.html?hl=&id=b55xDwAAQBAJ