the #1 reason your company struggles with innovation

Houses the sameWhen people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” ~ Eric Hoffer

Businesses and leaders everywhere are crying out for innovation. For continual improvements and new ideas that will push the company forward before it falls behind. But there’s a problem. And it’s a problem that will prevent most innovation from ever happening.

We like to think that business is about numbers, rational decisions, and predictable results. Except that it’s not. Business is about people. Period. If there’s any doubt, simply try running a profitable business without leaders, employees, or customers. Can’t be done.

Business is about people and people are often unpredictable, irrational, and don’t really care about what spreadsheets or computer models say they should do. Although we like to think we’re rational and objective, we humans all have biases that have been deeply ingrained as survival traits over the past 50,000+ years.

I find these biases fascinating because we all make decisions every day yet rarely understand the factors behind how we decide. It doesn’t matter how smart, educated, or experienced a person is – biases exist. The best we can do is be aware of how they affect our decisions so we can counter for them. [Note: I know you and I are completely rational 100% of the time, only making decisions with precise objective reasoning and never with emotion or bias; it’s everyone else I’m talking about.]

One of the biggest but least talked about biases is known as Puttnam’s Law. I’m paraphrasing a little but this law tells us no one will fault you for conforming to status quo and “best” practices, but you will be attacked and ridiculed for having the lunatic gall to do things differently. It’s ok to fail as long as you are failing like everyone else but there is a huge social penalty for being different even (especially?) when it gets better results. There is more risk in succeeding differently than in failing like everyone else.

We humans like to divide people up into “us” vs “them” and non-conformity is one of the gravest career and social sins. Standing out a little bit is ok, standing out a lot will get you derided, discredited, or ostracized. History is full of people who were a little too far ahead of their time – revered much later but misunderstood and ridiculed while alive.

Even when people want to create and think and do different there are strong social biases rewarding conformity of thought and action. Everybody is accountable to someone and for most people in most circumstances – whether entry level or CEO – it is much less risky from a career standpoint to just try to do what everyone else is doing (only a little better) than it is to take a leap and try something different.

It’s easier to justify low performance by saying you stuck to “best practices” or used the same strategy as your competition than it is to justify low (or even better) performance by taking a chance on something new. Puttnam’s Law suggests our individual careers are better off sticking with what made us or the company successful over the last 20 years than to figure out what will create success over the next 20 (even though it’s highly likely to be different).

Does this apply to all people and all companies in all situations? No, nothing does. But it applies to enough people in enough companies in enough situations to realize how it’s holding us back.

Please note, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t innovate or even express individuality. Quite the opposite. What I’m suggesting is that even when we want and ask for innovation and new solutions there are often factors creating counter-incentives that get in the way. Puttnam’s Law represents a huge unspoken barrier.

Do we want innovation? Absolutely. But we want it to be similar to everyone else.

The problem is, that’s sort of impossible.

[Photo credit: lucianvenutian via Compfight]

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