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Holly Green

CEO of The Human Factor, Inc.

Are You Talking Your Way Out of Innovation?

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How often do you hear these kinds of phrases in your company? Or worse, how often do you say them?

  • We already tried that; it’ll never work.
  • Nothing’s wrong with the way we’re doing it now, so why rock the boat?
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
  • This looks risky; why should we spend money on something new that might not work out?
  • We considered that idea several times in the past but it never penciled out.
  • If there were a better way to do this, we would already have thought of it.
  • I’m all for new products, but I don’t think the market is ready for this one yet.
  • If something goes wrong, our jobs could be on the line.
  • Remember what happened the last time we tried something new that didn’t work?

For the most part, these are well-meaning phrases from well-intentioned people. But they stem from innate brain patterns that do not always serve us well in today’s hyper-paced business world. And they slam the door on innovation by discarding good ideas before they can be fully evaluated. When you constantly slam the door in the face of new ideas, it isn’t long before they stop knocking altogether.

At the root of the problem is the natural (and powerful) human tendency to want to protect the status quo – even when we logically know we have to change to keep up or lead. Because they have so much to lose, large successful organizations are especially prone to asset protection, spending much more energy and resources protecting what is versus constantly creating or exploring what could be next.

Opening the door to new ideas and innovation requires taking deliberate steps to overcome the built-in brain patterns that lead us to automatically reject anything new. Here’s how.

Get brain savvy

Educate employees about how to become more aware of their thinking processes and illogical “thought bubbles” regarding innovation. Thought bubbles are those voices in our heads that instantly crop up when we consider something new (as in the list above).

Thought bubbles typically involve strong emotions because they come from the old part of the brain. If you feel threatened, defensive, challenged, or “positively, absolutely sure” that it’s a dumb idea, chances are you’ve got a thought bubble coursing through your head.

Any time you experience an instantaneous, powerful emotional reaction to a new idea, take a moment to consider why you’re reacting so strongly. Look at your underlying assumptions or beliefs being challenged and ask: is my assumption still true? Is it time for me to update by bubble? What do I stand to lose by having this assumption or belief challenged?

Expose yourself (and others)

Teach all managers and leaders to expose themselves (in a legally appropriate manner of course!) by sharing their thinking process. For example, “Here’s the data I have, this is what I believe it means, and therefore I have made these assumptions and recommend these actions…” Then ask for feedback, especially from people with different points of view.

Expose the thinking of others by asking, “What data do you have and what do you believe it indicates or means? Walk me through how you got to that conclusion. Help me understand what led you to believe that…”

Laying out your thinking process for all to see gives you a powerful tool for improving communication and gaining understanding and alignment among teams. It helps you see your own thinking process from a different perspective. Although it may feel like it is slowing you down to do this, you will get to where you want to go faster since you won’t have to do it over when you find out someone else processed or thought about the decision a little differently!

Regularly visit the land of “what if…?”

Most new ideas live in the land of “what if…?,” a magical place where almost anything is possible until someone comes along and quashes the idea. Get in the habit of visiting this land by asking questions like:

  • What if we considered this from our customer’s or competitor’s perspective?
  • What if an investor were going to buy us? Does what we’re currently doing add to our value?
  • What if we had to cut the time and resources on our current product in half?

To create more “what if” thinking in your organization, develop the habit of using neuroprompts in meetings and discussions. These are questions, statements, or visuals that trigger our brains to pause and think about what they’re working on and why.

Embed your neuroprompts in core operating processes, such as business and talent reviews, by asking, “What new ideas were introduced this past month/quarter? What did we invest in exploring them? What did we learn from that process, and what can be applied to the next time? How much did we fail?” (If you aren’t failing some of the time, you’re not trying hard enough!)

Flex your innovation “muscles”

Strive to develop the habits that lead to successful innovation. For example, constantly seek out new and diverse sources of data. That way, the next time someone says, “We already tried that and it doesn’t work,” you can respond with, “I have some data that suggests otherwise; let’s explore this some more, or I came across some great examples from other industries that could apply to us now…”

Identify a specific innovation target and focus on it every day. Change your perspective, by frequently scanning the horizon for new and emerging trends, both inside and outside your industry. Actively seek out data that disagrees with your point of view.

Stage your field of vision by keeping your goals in front of you visually. Challenge assumptions by visiting them on a regular basis to see whether they’re still valid.

Question the right answer. In fact, stop looking for it in the first place. As a leader, your job isn’t to find the right answer. It’s to identify many possible alternatives and choose the one (or more than one) that best supports reaching the desired destination.

The next time a good idea comes calling, instead of slamming the door on it, invite it in for some conversation. Consider what could be instead of what already is or what won’t. You may be surprised at what you come up with!


About Holly:

Holly is a Conference ’14 Thought Leader. She is CEO of The Human Factor, Inc., and helps business leaders and their companies achieve excellence by creating clarity on what winning looks like and determining how to get there with the resources and energy of the organization aligned and focused so everyone is in the same race.

An experienced business leader and behavioral scientist, Holly has a rare combination of extensive academic training and in-the-trenches experience working in and leading organizations. She was previously President of The Ken Blanchard Company and LumMed, Inc. Holly’s clients include Microsoft, Hilton Worldwide, Edwards LifeSciences, SKLZ, and Google as well as numerous small and midsized businesses.

Holly’s first top selling book, More Than a Minute: How to be an Effective Leader & Manager in Today’s Changing World (available in 9 languages globally) goes beyond the theory of leading and managing by providing practical, action-oriented information. Her newest book, Using Your Brain…to win in today’s hyper-paced world, has just been released and is already receiving international acclaim.