Overcome the Innovation Barrier

By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

We are ruined by our own biases. When making decisions, we see what we want, ignore probabilities, and minimize risks that uproot our hopes.
Gary Hamel The Future of Management

…(W)hatever hypothesis or intuition you have, however self-evident it may seem, when you test it against the data, it’s wrong—not every time, but very often.
– Dennis Berman So, What’s Your Algorithm? (WSJ, 1/4/2012)

Without ideas, organizational webs stagnate, crystalize and become immobile against the changing market landscape. Ideas fuel innovation, and innovation enables organizations to adapt and succeed.
Duncan Watts How we see it: Three senior executives on the future of marketing (McKinsey Quarterly, 7/2011)

Innovation follows a power law: for every 1,000 oddball ideas, only 100 will be worth experimenting with; out of those, no more than 10 will merit a significant investment, and only two or three will ultimately produce a bonanza.

Gary Hamel argues that a barrier to management innovation is a ‘dearth of new strategic options’. He says specifically that innovation suffers because decision makers ‘demand iron clad assurances of future success before investing even small amounts of capital and talent in nascent ideas.’ In his article citing Daniel Kahneman’s latest book Thinking Fast and Slow, Dennis Berman further illustrates the pitfalls of human judgement which likely underpin Hamel’s innovation barrier. A dearth of innovative options exists in part because organizational stakeholders who make decisions are unknowingly pinned by their own biases.

Having a set of practiced values, norms and beliefs in place which accept the infusion of new, objective and varied ideas across the business web is important to the success of the modern organization. Integrated properly, these cultural elements can uproot human biases in favor of objectivity.

Here are some ideas that I think can proliferate unbiased innovation:

  1. Write things down. Leaders should be encouraging teams to continuously investigate current processes and keep track of their observations. We do this where I work; results are checked by several individuals, and each checker is encouraged to apply his own verification method. If one’s method differs from another’s, he’ll be expected to describe how he found his results (thereby forcing him to keep track of his own verification process). By writing down the ways in which improvements can be made, an objective trail is created to support changes to the status quo. In the same article cited above, Duncan Watts urges us to: ‘make predictions. But record them. Nobody ever keeps track of the predictions they make. Our enthusiasm for making predictions is matched only by our reluctance to be held accountable for them.’
  2. Think we can. If you think of one as being unable, you’ll treat them that way and diffuse his ability to come up with novel solutions. That is, having a mindset that views others as somehow less intelligent, capable or skilled kills another’s ability to contribute to collective success and diminishes the glue that binds teams: trust. This mindset also helps us to be mindful of our own biases when considering decisions affecting others. Leaders especially need to open themselves up to accepting the ideas of those below them in the hierarchy. People look up to the top for acceptable ways to think and behave, so a cognizant leader has the ability to unlock capability (and innovation) by treating people as contributing assets.

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP, is a rewards coordinator with Best Buy Canada. Nilesh graduated from Simon Fraser University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, First Class Honours. He majored in Human Resources Management and tacked on an extended minor in Psychology. He’s a self-confessed nerd (the first step is admitting), likes to read, loves hockey and is struggling with the complexities of learning the game of golf.


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