The Unknown Knowns of Innovation


The Most Common Innovation Mistake in the World

A while ago I was talking to a local CEO who wanted to make his organisation more innovative.  As we talked, he got increasingly excited, and after 30 minutes he went out and called in as many as his senior leadership team as he could find.  So we had 9 people crammed into his office talking about innovation.

After a bit of discussion, one of the managers hesitantly said “You know, we had an innovation program before.” And then everyone in the room got this strange look on their face.

I thought for a minute, and then said “Let me guess.  You made a big internal announcement for your new program, and then you asked everyone in the organisation for their innovative ideas.  You were flooded with submissions and everyone was excited.  But then you didn’t have any way to choose the best ones, and no money or time to execute them, so nothing happened.  Then everyone that put in their ideas got pissed off, and at the end of it, things were worse than when they started.”

It turns out that’s exactly what happened.  How did I know this?  It’s not that I had any inside information, or that I’m all that smart.  It’s just that this is the most common innovation mistake that I run into.

The biggest mistake people make is confuse having ideas with innovation.  They’re two different things – innovation is actually the process of idea management.

The Problem with Unknown Knowns

We’ve all heard about known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and how it’s the things we don’t know we don’t know that cause trouble.  This is true.

But there are also things that we know are true, that seem to be unknown because no one ever acts on them.  Here’s an example  I took this picture a couple of minutes ago at 10:39 am at the coffee shop here at the business school:



That’s the line of people that left their desks at exactly 10:30 to get their morning coffee.  If you had left your desk at, say, 10:25 instead, the number of people in line was 0.

At some level, everyone knows this.  But still, everyone still leaves their desk at 10:30, not 10:25.  It’s an Unknown Known.

The Unknown Knowns of Innovation

There are some things about innovation that we know from many years of observation and research.  Here are three of the most important ones that we know, but don’t act upon:

  1. If you want different outcomes, you have to manage differently.
  2. You build an innovation capability by changing your culture, which requires a lot of hard work.
  3. You only see the results of this hard work over time.

If you think about the “innovation program” that failed, you can see that it didn’t take any of these three things into account.

There have been a bunch of great posts about this topic over the past couple of days.  I recommend that you read all of them.  Here are some highlights:

Jorge Barba speaks about how hard it is to become innovative through copying:

To innovate you must overcome the need for step-by-step recipes.

Yes, I’m serious. As I’ve said before, there are plenty of methodologies that you can use to get started. But there is a much deeper reason for discounting methodologies…

Perception separates innovator from imitator.

That is why there is nothing linear about innovating. While other practitioners are infatuated by frameworks and templates, I believe template thinking does not equal innovation.

Jorge was building on a post by Henry Doss, who says that innovation can’t simply be something that you bolt-on to business as usual:

Applying overtly linear thinking to innovation strategy leads us to a kind ofpost hoc ergo propter hoc world, which goes something like this:  “Look, this (company, geography or organization) is innovative.  These are the things that seem to be different about them.  So, let’s do those ‘different things’ the same way, and we’ll be innovative too!” Then, various mixes of components and features of innovative cultures are identified, extracted, and sprinkled into  non-innovative organizations, stirred around and . . . well, usually, organizations just keep on operating more or less the way they did before they attempted innovation.  We may refer to this as the “law of innovation inertia.”

Jeffrey Phillips responded to Jorge’s post by reiterating the fact that building innovation capacity requires time and effort:

Copying a “best practice” method or set of tools will take only a month or two.  Developing your people and changing a culture can take several years.  Here you begin to see the crux of the problem.  Management teams aren’t especially good at long term thinking or committing to long term, slow change projects, especially ones with unpredictable outcomes.  Quick and dirty, aiming for the proverbial “low hanging fruit” will always win out over slow, careful, constant change.  But that slow, careful, constant change is what you can’t copy, and must have, for innovation success.

And, as usual, Seth Godin makes the point succinctly:

Bullet points, step by step processes that are guaranteed to work overnight, proven shortcuts…

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

It will take you less time and less effort to do it the difficult way than it will to buy and try and discard all the shortcuts.

To innovate, we have to do things differently.  We have to manage differently, and we have to do this over time.  If we do, we’ll be more innovative.  It’s not easy, and there are no shortcuts.  But we know that if we do this, we’ll build our innovation capability.

Oh, and it’s 11:08 now, and there is no line for coffee at all.  We know how to get better outcomes – we just have to stop treating the steps to do so like Unknown Knowns simply because they’re hard.


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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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