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Jeffrey Phillips

Quality Insider

Innovation Decreases With Knowledge


Published: Thursday, August 20, 2015 - 11:45

Did the headline of this article grab your attention? Did you think I was going to assert that dumb people are better innovators? Nothing of the sort. However, I think I can positively assert that bringing all of your knowledge to bear on a problem that needs an innovative solution is often exactly the opposite of what you should do. Here's why.

If you can solve a problem with all of the knowledge you possess, drawing on everything you know and expect to be true, you are narrowing your range of solutions and calling on past experience. Most likely you’re solving a problem the likes of which you've seen before, and replicating past solutions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the solution is unlikely to be new and different. You see, drawing on all of your knowledge and experience is what the vast majority of us are paid to do each day, becoming “experts” in our specific domains—and the more knowledge and expertise you have, the less likely you are to draw on new information or question your frameworks or perspectives.

To create something completely new and different (to “innovate,” in my terminology) means to rethink how a problem is addressed, or even framed—to look at a problem from a completely fresh perspective, not bringing all of your experience and knowledge to bear. In other words, to look at a problem from the perspective of the “beginner’s mind.” You know who does this especially well? Children, because they don’t have experience or a preconceived frame of reference. They want to know “why” a problem has been solved in a particular way in the past, rather than accepting that they way it was solved in the past is the right way. Sometimes they even ask why something is considered a problem at all.

When we at OVO researched the traits that innovators share, we found time and time again that the best innovators are people who have the capability and willingness to explore problems and opportunities with that beginner’s mind perception, who are willing to set aside convention and knowledge and expectation and look at a problem as if for the first time. The sainted and frequently referenced Steve Jobs was good at this, and other heralded innovators are as well. But this approach works against the grain of everything we’ve been taught, and how we are managed and rewarded. Very few people are willing to strip away all they know and appear as naive children when looking at a corporate challenge or opportunity. However, that kind of exploration and discovery is often what’s needed most, not another round of application of decades of experience which simply reinforce the status quo.

The more you apply what you know, your frame of reference, your perceptions and your conventions to a problem, the more likely you are to create “ideas” that resemble the solutions you already have. Yet that is what most corporations constantly reinforce. Instead, the same corporations seeking interesting or radical new ideas should ask, first, if what they think are problems are really problems; second, how they might address the problem from a naive, almost childlike point of view; and third, what they would do if they were encountering the challenge for the first time, with no past experience or worries about existing investments. Perhaps you could use your “bring your child to work” day to do real discovery and innovation, because children don’t carry around all the weight of expectations and conventions and aren’t all that worried about what grownups think of their ideas.

Can your organization, its culture, and its leadership allow enough child-like exploration and discovery to flourish to allow really new ideas to grow, or will the culture constantly reinforce expertise, knowledge, and convention, continually generating very similar versions of the same ideas?

First published Aug. 13, 2015, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).


TRIZ as possible solution

This is very interesting article. The problem described is well known as Psychological inertia (see http://www.ideationtriz.com/source/121_PI.htm) and can be solved by using TRIZ tools developed by G.S. Altshuller (Creativity as an Exact Science – The Theory of the Solution of Inventive Problems).

Best regards,