Innovation Isn’t Always Awesome

Companies of all sizes are pushing their teams to be “innovative”. It’s the modern buzzword, and it’s in heavy rotation in boardrooms across the globe. Trouble is, “innovation” is a vague concept. Without a clear business objective, “innovation” could be anything from a radical new product strategy to something superficial like updating the font on the “don’t put fish in the microwave” sign in the company break room.

Real innovation is critical to keeping pace in today’s business world (especially if you’re in tech) and it’s important that everyone on the team keep an eye out for opportunities to improve what the company does and how it does it. But what happens when someone sees an opportunity and has an idea for how to solve it? How do you decide which ideas to pursue now and which ones to send to the “parking lot”?

Trouble is, often times an idea can seem wonderful at first glance, but fails under further scrutiny. All ideas deserve the same level of scrutiny, but sometimes that doesn’t happen because of where the idea comes from.

Ray Dalio talks about the idea of “believability” in his book, Principals (highly recommended reading, btw). The concept being you go with the idea generated by the person with the most expertise in the matter, or in other words, the person who is “most believable”. But blindly following that person can be dangerous.

People tend to over-value their own ideas, and that can lead organizations to “innovate” on something that won’t actually help the business. In a recent study, researchers looked at the inherent biases people have, and how to overcome them. They found not only do people overvalue their own ideas, the bias is even greater when they hold management or other leadership positions.

“The trouble is, expert employees may well oversell or undersell their ideas, leading the company to pass up on good ideas while investing in bad ones.”

– it goes on to say –

“Managers tend to project their increased confidence in their personal abilities onto their idea, even when ideation is not the key competence of a manager.”

You might be thinking, “Okay, no problem. We’ll have a team evaluate the idea instead of just taking one person’s word.” That sounds great, but it might not work. The study also finds…

“…during intense ideation sessions, group members do not only develop strong ties with the idea but also with fellow group members. This “we-feeling”—which is an explicit objective in team-building exercises—becomes problematic for idea evaluation.”

“We all knew that relying on the boss’s genius was a risky strategy.  The bad news is that empowered employees aren’t necessarily that much wiser.”

So now what? You have to balance how you evaluate ideas against these biases, and a good way to do that is with a pre-defined process of experimentation. We recommend organizations create a few simple experiments to test how things work in a controlled environment, measure the results, and repeat in a series of Loops. As part of that process, we recommend doing something we call “The Soak”.

The Soak is essentially a short period of time between work sessions to allow the team to reflect on what they are doing, process all the possible outcomes, and how those outcomes will impact business goals. Turns out, that’s what this study found, too.

“But there was also good news: although the crowd coming up with an idea will likely overvalue it, that overvaluation becomes less likely if the ideators take some distance from the process of generating it.

Given that, ask your ideators to evaluate their idea after a break and in a different location. In addition, ask your evaluators to look a bit more critically at ideas pitched by managers or teams—these ideas are already favored because of their creators’ power or because of common expectation of superior team creativity. Conversely, be a bit more sympathetic when evaluating ideas from front-line employees as these are much more likely to accurately evaluated by the people who came up with them.”

This is why we have “The Soak”.
Next time you’re working through how to solve something or bring a new idea into reality, make sure you have a good balance of individual and team contributions, and that you’re giving the team time to Soak on the ideas to make sure you’re going down the right path. You’ll end up with better quality, more effective ideas which really help achieve business goals that way, and that’s what innovation is really all about. Not sure how to do it? We can help.

Read More: The Study – The HBR Article