An Innovation Paradox

David Lazer included a really interesting demo in one of his talks at the Sunbelt Social Networks Conference. He was in a session talking about using the internet as a research resource, and there were about 100 people in the room. Lazer asked how many people there were under 30 years old – about 40% of the people raised their hands. Then he asked how many of those people had a landline – and not one of them did. He repeated the exercise with people over 45, and about 2/3 of us still have a landline.

The point that he was making is that a lot of the people making pronouncements about the internet are over 45 – and our experiences of the internet and technology is likely to be very different from those of the majority of people using the net these days.

The thing that struck me about this is that I was surprised by the fact that none of the under-30s had a landline. I had read about this, and I know a fair number of people in that age group, and it’s true that everyone that I know only has a mobile. But it still hadn’t really sunk in to me that that’s the way things are done now.

The innovation lesson here is that when we’re coming up with great ideas, we need to know a lot about the people that we want to use them. And one of the huge pitfalls here is to assume that they are just like us. We need to have some mechanism in place to help us figure out what people really need.

However, John C. Bogle points out some of the problems with this in his book Enough. He is one of the people that helped invent mutual funds, but he is critical of much financial innovation. Part of the problem that he identifies is an over-reliance on process. He includes this quote from Daniel Yankelovich to illustrate the danger in relying on metrics and process:

The first step is to measure what can be easily measured. This is okay as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which cannot be measured, or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what cannot be measured really is not very important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what cannot be measured does not really exist. This is suicide.

Bogle counters this with an aphorism that he freely shares within his firm, Vanguard, which says:

For God’s sake, let’s always keep Vanguard a place where judgment has at least a fighting chance to triumph over process.

In other words, sometimes we have to rely on our own belief concerning the correct course of action to follow.

These two views form an innovation paradox – we have to understand that not everyone is like us, and we need some kind of process for learning how they differ and what they need. So we have to get outside of our own head. On the other hand, we also have to be willing at times to ditch our processes and rely on our own good judgment. So we have to ignore what everyone else says and stick with what we know ourselves.

How can we do both?

There are a couple of steps to take to resolve this paradox. One is to develop the wisdom to realise when we need to follow one path, and when the other is most appropriate. This comes from experience, and it also comes from realising that there is not only one correct way to do things.

Developing the flexibility to act both ways is the second step- we need to be able to be able to get out of our own heads to understand the needs of others, while also sometimes being willing to ignore what everyone else says and use our judgment.

Managing innovation is filled with paradoxes like this – where we are simultaneously pulled in opposite directions. We need to be comfortable with the ambiguity that this imposes on us. And we need to be wise enough to figure out which way is best in each particular circumstance. Both of these are hard skills to develop – and even harder to quantify. But it’s soft skills like this that are essential to managing innovation. And to managing.

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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4 thoughts on “An Innovation Paradox

  1. Tim,

    I totally agree


    leaders and managers can be “abusive” and process models can offer some protection.


    leaders and managers game process systems anyway


    I totally agree with you

  2. 😀

    One of my assumptions is that the people reading this are reasonably good managers to start with – that might be a stretch, but it’s what I’d like to think!

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