Organizations must think innovatively without falling into the innovation trap

Building a culture of experimentation requires creating frameworks like hackathons, innovation labs and brainstorming off-sites, and investing in people, ideas and projects that are different from the norm.
Building a culture of experimentation requires creating frameworks like hackathons, innovation labs and brainstorming off-sites, and investing in people, ideas and projects that are different from the norm.


  • They should foster alternate thinking as a strategic aim and resist the usual mental short-cuts that result in herd behaviour. Here’s how.

The ancient art of magic might seem a strange way to understand human behaviour, but two neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez discerned that master magicians had discovered the secrets of neuroscience and human behaviour much like master painters had developed techniques to get a three-dimensional effect while painting on two-dimension surfaces centuries before modern technology. Here is a quick example to show how neural pathways can be highjacked to influence behaviour.

Think of any number from 2-10 and multiply it by 9. Now add the two digits and subtract 5. You should be left with a completely random single digit number. Next find the corresponding letter of the alphabet for that number—if the number is 1, then the letter is A; if it’s 2, the letter is B; if it is 3, then C; and so on. Now think of a country that starts with your letter. Next, think of an animal whose name starts with the second letter of the country’s name and picture its colour. This is much more fun when I do it in a large group, where almost everyone would end up with a grey elephant in Denmark. (For those who can’t read further until you know how this works: Any number from 2 to 10 multiplied by 9 will result in two digits that add up to 9. Subtracting 5 leaves 4, which lands most of us in Denmark).

This trick, popularly called ‘Elephants in Denmark,’ demonstrates how an entire group of diverse people can follow herd behaviour while believing that they have made unique and independent decisions. Ironically, this is also the behaviour of many organizations where status quoists follow herd mentality but are convinced that their decisions or behaviour is distinctive.

There will always be a few who deviate from the herd, perhaps going wrong in their calculations or choosing an eagle or eel instead of an elephant and getting a different result. These are deliberate or accidental iconoclasts who by virtue of their previous experiences (or lack of it), or by deviating from the norm, discover approaches that are different from the herd’s. These are the genuine pathfinders who question organizational assumptions. But such outliers are usually bludgeoned into submission under the euphemism of organizational ‘alignment’. That’s why entrepreneurs feel stifled and depart with their valuable ideas and passion, or worse, stay back in a disengaged state while the organization languishes in dull conformity. How then can leaders create an environment where alternative thinking is encouraged?

As George Bernard Shaw observed, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." The key job of strategic leaders is to find such ‘unreasonable’ persons who are simply not satisfied with the status quo, empower their audacity and support them, especially when they face pushback, which they most certainly will if their ideas are truly futuristic.

Some of our larger companies try to do this with frameworks like incubators and idea generation campaigns, but while their intent may be noble, the implementation is usually suboptimal. Results are often measured in terms of businesses incubated or number of ideas generated. That misses the whole point. If the measurement is focused on success, then by definition outliers will be ousted because all radical ideas will fail a few times before succeeding. Even highly admired companies such as Apple, Google, etc, have had a string of high-profile failures like Lisa, Newton, Pippin and Apple Maps in the case of the former and Google Glass, Wave, Buzz, Google Plus, etc, in the latter’s. However, the key differentiator of these world-leading conglomerates is that they genuinely encourage alternative thinking using three strategies.

The first is establishing a structured outlier recognition programme that seeks to identify, empower and reward such individuals and create the initial set of change agents. Next is to create a culture of experimentation where success is measured by what was learnt, rather than whether the experiment was successful. This requires creating frameworks like hackathons, innovation labs and brainstorming off-sites, and investing in people, ideas and projects that are different from the norm. The third step is to make the rubber meet the road by implementing an outcome-oriented mindset. This involves transitioning from measuring outputs to evaluating outcomes in assessing the success of outlier-driven initiatives. This shift entails looking at the big picture aligned to the organization’s future objectives and emphasizing the impact of outlier ideas on those ambitions. Metrics like ‘speed of trust,’ business velocity and strategic capacity building are benchmarks to gauge the effectiveness of such projects. Furthermore, teams are constantly encouraged to set audacious goals and given a free hand to deliver on them.

In a world that glorifies well-aligned, consensus-driven conformists, the use of alternative thinking doesn’t just offer a competitive advantage, it is an existential need. Unless organizations realize this, they will keep placing grey elephants in Denmark while believing they are unique in their thinking.

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