Why Smart People Struggle to be Innovative

Why Smart People Struggle to be InnovativeIf you’re employed by a business and are reading this article, the chances are you’re quite smart.

You must have a level of knowledge and expertise in something that your employer values – which is why they offered you a job in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s this knowledge and expertise that’s often stopping you from being innovative.

Why?Because as an expert you are supposed to know the answers to any questions asked that relate to your area of skill and knowledge.

You can test this out if you want. The next time a senior manager asks you a question, try answering it with I don’t know or Sorry, I haven’t got a clue. Responses like this are likely to be serious CLMs (Career Limiting Moves). There’s a corporate expectation that everything should be known.

The educationalist and creative expert Sir Ken Robinson sums this up by saying “In our culture, not to know is to be at fault, socially.”

You, as an expert, always need to be seen to know the answers – but in doing so you tend to repeat, recycle and upcycle things that you’ve done before and that you know will work.

Because that’s what experts do!

We inherently love answering questions that only we know the answers to, as this cements our place in the organisation as the expert in this field. And it also fuels our self-esteem.

However, to be innovative we have to do something new – and that’s to go beyond the realms of our existing knowledge and to find something new. Something unknown. And this is worrisome for an expert. It shows what we don’t know.

And being British doesn’t help either.

Think of a workshop where there’s a discussion on the growth a business could achieve by doing new things. The conversation covers a broad range of topics and for each one the appropriate expert is expected to spout-forth words of wisdom in that area. By default, the expert will talk about what they know – not what they don’t know. And in line with British cultural mandates, the other people in the room stay quiet, in deference to the expert at the table.

Maybe things should be different.

When any specific topic is being discussed for fresh opportunities, perhaps the expert should be the one to shut-up and allow the rest of the people to talk. Because for innovation to happen, it first needs to be uncovered – and this is achieved through a process of exploration.

When Captain James Cook was on his voyage of discovery from 1768-1771 it included his search for the hypothetical Terra Australis – the presumed great southern continent. From the top mast of Cook’s ship HMS Endeavour, a crew member could only see a distance of twelve miles in any direction to the horizon. They didn’t know where to go, so they went in directions from where they saw a bird flying or when they saw some fresh foliage in the sea – and of course where the prevailing winds took them. They often had to follow these hunches as they only had such a limited view in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

This is true exploration. And in true explorer-style, they traversed an erratic course, and on their journey they made amazing discoveries – like New Zealand and Australia. The botanists on the crew also discovered many smaller things, like new species of plant and animals too. The diagram below shows the route that Cook may have taken in his exploration.

Explorers Route

When you are on an aeroplane and resort to reading the in-flight magazine, invariably towards the back will be a map of the routes that the airline flies. These will be depicted as straight lines traversing the globe from central hubs like London, Dusseldorf or New York and covering all major points on the planet. This is similar to how the expert thinks. They intend to go directly from a question to an answer.

Well, if Captain Cook had been an expert rather than an explorer then his journey would have potentially been more like this…

Experts Route

He’d have completed his journey much quicker but would have missed out on discoveries like New Zealand and Australia! For innovation to happen we have to be willing to meander and explore for new answers to questions.

But this isn’t in the nature of an expert.

Let me give you an example. When you lose your keys where do you always find them? The answer is in the last place you looked! That’s because you’ve found the solution to your quest – and so you stop looking. You can’t find your keys again when they’re already in your hand. But with innovation it’s different.

Once you find one brilliant opportunity you must look even harder, because you’ve broken through the barrier of the obvious into new ground. And more opportunities will exist close-by – but only if you continue to look and explore.

Unfortunately, exploration does not come naturally to the expert. Once a good solution has been found to a question, then they like to move on to the next question – rather than move on to the next answer. When the expert stops looking, the explorer continues looking. For Killer Questions have many different answers – not just one!

Asking Killer Questions

To identify big and bold growth opportunities, a business needs to be asking big and bold questions. We call these Killer Questions. They’re the sort of questions that experts and many leaders are fearful of asking because the immediate response to a How do we achieve (this) question are the three most feared words in the business lexicon: I Don’t Know.

If, as a business, you ask yourself the question Where will we get an additional 5% increase in revenues this year, the solution isn’t likely to be some radical change to your business, or some game-changing new product. It’s likely to come from a series of smaller changes that will each add value and which accumulate to give the desired additional 5% result.

These smaller changes will most-likely appear to be blindingly obvious in hindsight – as all the best new ideas are. Unfortunately, this can have the tendency to make the expert look a little stupid. For they weren’t the ones to come up with these ideas – which potentially seem to reside within their area of expertise.

When it comes to experts and the value you bring to an innovation process, your real value comes in applying your knowledge and expertise to answering other people’s questions, or issues related to their areas – not your own! This way you apply your massive experience to seeing their perspective differently – and so adding value to the discussion that others can’t.

Similarly for the other experts around the table who will also be adding value to the discussion from their own area of expertise – but to the first person’s issue.

How many business / growth questions have you been asked recently where the honest answer was that you didn’t know? Most probably none. It’s not the business protocol to ask this kind of question. And if you only came up with the idea for growth now – and it’s a really simple and smart one – then why didn’t you suggest this last year?

In hindsight, it’s often a no-win situation for the expert, which they subconsciously try to avoid by not asking the bold questions in the first place.

We need to be asking questions that we don’t know the answers to. Experts need to mentally change from knowing everything, to knowing nothing – and to leave their expertise by the door and become explorers for a while.

As an expert, this may seem uncomfortable not allowing your expertise to shine, but you need to consider yourself to be the explorer and to apply your broad collection of knowledge to other people’s issues. To be an explorer for them! Later on, when it comes time to shape the opportunities into deliverables, then you can re-engage and assert your expertise to help with the execution.

Boosting Executive ThinkingMaking this change is hard – but very effective. Being an inexperienced explorer and avoiding commenting on your area of expertise is the key-way for you to deliver greater degrees of innovation in your business.

Our new guide book Boosting Executive Thinking leads you through a process which helps you ask – and creatively answer – powerful business questions. It’s in a practical workbook format and is available from Amazon here.

At Ingenious Growth we help create business and service developments through an innovative approach to framing powerful growth questions – and finding creatively-pragmatic answers to these questions.

So what’s the big question you need answers to now?

Pre-Order Your Copy of Charting Change

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Chris Thomason is Managing Director of Ingenious Growth, a business growth and customer experience design company. He is also the author of The Delicate Force which explains what drives our ideas, inspiration and creativity. The Delicate Force is available from the Amazon online bookstore.

One comment

  1. This article convinced me of several things:

    1. You probably suffer from low self-esteem.

    2. You have no idea how “smart” people think because who is and isn’t “smart” is a subjective judgement call.

    3. You don’t know a damn thing about innovation.

    Don’t feel bad. At least 65% of the innovation industry is in the same boat as you…

Leave a Reply