Innovation Obstacle: Social Habits

For some insight into another common innovation obstacle, consider this quote from John Maynard Keynes:

Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally then to succeed unconventionally.

Because it’s pithy and quotable, it might be easy to dismiss – and just as an aside, why aren’t modern-day economists as good with one-liners as Keynes and Schumpeter were? But I’ve seen this type of thinking far too much – I’ve come to believe that Keynes was probably right.

This is another form of risk aversion.

If we don’t take a risk, we may well fail, but at least we’ll fail conventionally. But if we do take a risk, then we might fail, which would be bad, or, if we succeed, we’ll be weird, which would also be bad.

I think that to successfully innovate, we have to be willing to be weird. We must be prepared to succeed unconventionally.

Furthermore, if we are managers or in a position to influence people, we have to stop rewarding failing conventionally. This is hard, because risk-aversion appears to be deeply hardwired.

How can we get around this? Here are some thoughts:

  • Reward people that come up with the weirdest ideas: don’t reward volume of ideas, or success, but weirdness. If we want more unconventional success, we have to get comfortable with being weird.
  • Be extra vigilant for conventional failures: these are hard to spot because people who are failing conventionally will look normal, or average. This is the outcome of the saying that I kept running into back in my photocopier days – “no one ever got fired for buying Xerox.” But if Xerox isn’t the best choice (and they weren’t then), then someone should be getting fired for buying Xerox. Or you should at least have a word with them…
  • Make it risky to not test out new ideas: we have to make it hard to play it safe. We need to test ideas promiscuously. Measure and reward this, and it is harder to sit back and fail conventionally.

Preferring conventional failure to unconventional success is comfortable, but it’s intellectually lazy.

It’s time to be weird.

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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7 thoughts on “Innovation Obstacle: Social Habits

  1. That is one thing that does work well in “Silicon Valley.” It’s OK to be weird and to fail unconventionally. In fact, given the concentration of that-special-kind-of-weird people in this area, “weird” is the norm and people who talk about working “30 years at …” are the weird ones. Failure (of that-certain-kind) is celebrated.

  2. Hi Matt – I hope that things are going well over your way!

    I agree – I think that this is a big part of the success that we’ve seen coming out of Silicon Valley. I’ve gotten questions relating to this in all of the talks that I’ve given this week in Ciudad Juarez. People here seem to feel very constrained by expectations, which is a tough thing to fight.

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