Innovation Obstacle: Gumption Traps

Imagine that you have a great idea for how to make things work better at your job – it shouldn’t take too much effort, I’m sure you have plenty. Now think about an idea like that you had, but never acted upon – what happened? You probably thought of all the obstacles to executing the idea. People won’t go for it, they hate change, my boss won’t let me try it out, the organisation is too risk-averse, I didn’t get any recognition or support for the last idea I had, and so on. So you decided that the situation wasn’t really that bad, you could live without improving it if you really had to.

You just fell into a gumption trap.

Gumption Traps

Joe McCarthy talks about Gumption Traps in a series of typically excellent posts. The idea comes from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Here is what Pirsig says about gumption and Gumption Traps:

I like the word “gumption” because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along. I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption.

A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.

Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined “irreplaceable” assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things “gumption traps.”

There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.

I highly recommend reading all of McCarthy’s post on this, but here is part of what he says about Gumption Traps:

Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for life, and explores a variety of gumption traps – externally induced out-of-sequence reassembly, intermittent failure and parts problems as well as internally induced traps arising from value rigidity, ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience – and ways of addressing and overcoming them.

In innovation, we have both internal and external Gumption Traps.

How to Avoid Gumption Traps

There are a few things that we can do to avoid Gumption Traps. The first is that we have to be doing something that we believe in. This provides powerful motivation to act on our ideas. As is often the case, Hugh MacLeod captures this idea perfectly:

There are also some very useful steps to follow in Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Grant Halvorson. This idea started as a blog post, but it’s now an excellent short e-Book – the book includes the scientific research that supports her ideas, along with practical steps to enact each of the nine things.

The nine things are not really surprising, but they are powerful. The one that most directly addresses the Gumption Trap is number 6: Have Grit:

Grit is a willingness to commit to long-term goals, and to persist in the face of difficulty. Studies show that gritty people obtain more education in their lifetime, and earn higher college GPAs. Grit predicts which cadets will stick out their first grueling year at West Point. In fact, grit even predicts which round contestants will make it to at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The good news is, if you aren’t particularly gritty now, there is something you can do about it. People who lack grit more often than not believe that they just don’t have the innate abilities successful people have. If that describes your own thinking …. well, there’s no way to put this nicely: you are wrong. As I mentioned earlier, effort, planning, persistence, and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed. Embracing this knowledge will not only help you see yourself and your goals more accurately, but also do wonders for your grit.

Grit and Gumption are pretty much the same thing. Grit is an important part of innovation. Grit helps us learn from experiments that fail, instead of despairing. Grit helps us push our ideas even if the boss doesn’t directly support them.

Grit helps us change the world, if that’s what we’re trying to do. And we should be.

The next time you face a Gumption Trap, if you’re not finding a way around it, think of Halvorson’s nine ideas. They can help you change the world.

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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5 thoughts on “Innovation Obstacle: Gumption Traps

  1. I enjoyed the ideas you’ve woven together here (and not just because of your kind words about a thread I’ve recently written about).

    The emphasis on gumption and grit reminds me of the Finnish word sisu ‘ “strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity” [Wikipedia] – that I learned about while working at Nokia.

    You highlight tip #6 from Heidi Grant Halverson’s list, but I also think #5 – focus on getting better, not on being good – is relevant here as well, and reflects wisdom from Ira Glass I encountered here a few posts ago about being willing to produce lots of crap on the way to producing better stuff. [That post of yours, as you know, prompted the post I wrote about gumption traps]

    Finally, I wanted to highlight one tip from your earlier blog post about grit, that I don’t see covered here or in the 9 Things: don’t be afraid to ask for help (even from a boss toward whom you might not feel kindly disposed). One of the important lessons I derived from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is that the “self-made man” (or woman) is a myth, that most successful people are successful only through the support of other people. There’s no substitute for grit / gumption / sisu, but working hard with appropriate guidance and mentoring can make a big difference.

  2. Thanks for triggering the thoughts Joe!

    Sisu is an excellent word – now I’ll have to figure out to slip it into everyday conversation…

    I agree with you re: focus on getting better, not on being good. Her whole list is actually good, and really well-supported by research. It’s an outstanding example of academic blogging. So it was hard to pick out one or two to focus on. It was the grit point that sent me back to my earlier post. Point 5 would probably support a post of its own…

    And the self-made man point is a really good one. I haven’t read Outliers yet, but that might be reason enough. The self-made man myth is one of my pet peeves.

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