Here is one of the biggest innovation obstacles around: the need for certainty.
Dwight Towers posted a great quote from Frederick Douglass over the weekend that gets at the problem:
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
Douglass was obviously talking about bigger issues than I am, but the same principle holds. You can’t innovate without uncertainty.
Here is how Jeffrey Phillips puts it in his book Relentless Innovation:
“Everyone understands from the beginning how difficult it is to create compelling new ideas in any sutation, much less to convert those ideas into viable products and services. To compound the difficulty, executives are asking for disruptive ideas while expecting the business to continue to operate at full effectiveness and efficiency. Middle managers receive these messages and understand the unspoken dichotomy in the request: create radical, valuable new products and services but don’t upset the status quo.”
You can’t manage that way. To gain the benefits of innovation, which are substantial, you have to learn to live with some uncertainty.
Sacha Chua addresses this issue in the context of figuring out what you should do with your life in a really good post on passion and uncertainty:
“When people wish for passion, I think what they’re really wishing for is certainty: the knowledge that this, here, is exactly what you are meant to do, that intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. The certainty that this is the best way to spend this moment in time, and the ease of not having to make yourself do something or fight distractions.”
This is why I think that the single most important management skill to develop is a tolerance for ambiguity.
Just as you don’t get crops without plowing the ground, you don’t get innovation without creating uncertainty. In some respects, tolerating uncertainty isn’t enough – you have to actively invite it in.
There is no innovation without uncertainty.
Sacha asks a really good question: what happens if you let go of the need for certainty? What if you don’t know that what you’re doing will work? What if people hate your idea? What if there’s a chance you could be embarrassed? And worse, what if it happens in front of your peers, or your boss?
If you have to have certainty, none of these bad things will happen. But you won’t innovate. You won’t learn what you’re capable of doing, and you won’t get better. In fact, it’s impossible to learn without making mistakes.
Learning is the way around this problem. If we actively court uncertainty, then we put ourselves in a position to learn.
In a complex economy, the way to think about the future is this:
- We can’t predict the future – there is no certainty.
- But we can learn about the patterns from which the future will emerge.
- In fact, while we can’t control the future, we can influence it.
- The best way to influence the future is by innovating through experiments.
Here’s my prescription for tomorrow: Let go of the need for certainty. Try an experiment. Learn.
I’ve got my experiment planned – what’s yours?
image credit: from flickr/Ecoagriculture Partners
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Tim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.