Innovation Creates Uncertainty

One of the reasons that firms are often hesitant to innovate is that innovation creates uncertainty, and a lot of people are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Here is short clip from one of our earlier Executive Education courses where I talk about how we can use innovation technologies to reduce uncertainty a little bit:

Innovation technologies are those that support the innovation process. They are particularly useful for rapid prototyping and simulation – two processes that help us cycle through potential ideas more rapidly. This gives us one way to overcome uncertainty. While the outcome of each individual idea that we try out is uncertain, the more experiments we attempt, the more likely we are to find a great idea. We can overcome uncertainty by increasing our experiments.

Bob Sutton’s recent post, Innovation Will Always Have Messy Parts addresses this issue nicely. He includes this great quote from Bill Coyne, who used to lead R&D at 3M:

Finally, don’t try to control or make safe the fumbling, panicky, glorious adventure of discovery. Occasionally, one sees articles that describe how to rationalize this process, how to take the fuzzy front end and give it a nice haircut. This is self-defeating. We should allow the fuzzy front end to be as unkempt and as fuzzy as we can. Long– term growth depends on innovation, and innovation isn’t neat. We stumble on many of our best discoveries. If you want to follow the rapidly moving leading edge, you must learn to live on your feet. And you must be willing to make necessary, healthy stumbles.

The front end of innovation is fuzzy because of the uncertainty. If we reduce the fuzziness, we reduce our chances of finding and executing a great idea. If we are going to successfully innovate, we have to be comfortable with ambiguity. We can reduce overall uncertainty by increasing our experiments, but this doesn’t come naturally.

Nevertheless, trying more things that are individually uncertain can reduce the uncertainty in the overall process. It’s one of the many paradoxes which we must become comfortable if we are to successfully lead innovation.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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