The Paradoxes of Innovation … … the paradox of ideas, bringing together two opposing concepts … the paradox of process, looking beyond the machine

March 6, 2023

Thomas Edison said “I have not failed 10,000 times, I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

In writing my latest book, Business Recoded, I’ve explored many fascinating stories of our changing business world, discovered some incredible organisations, and interviewed some truly inspiring leaders.

I’ve also come across quite a few quirks of the system – effects and paradoxes – which, whether they are true or not, make you think. Here are a few.

Consider these little examples from social behaviour:

  • Abilene Paradox: A group decides to do something that no one in the group wants to do because everyone mistakenly assumes they’re the only ones who object to the idea and they don’t want to rock the boat by speaking up.
  • Luxury Paradox: The more expensive something is the less likely you are to use it, so the relationship between price and utility is an inverted U. Ferraris sit in garages; Toyotas get driven.
  • Friendship Paradox: On average, people have fewer friends than their friends have, because people with an abnormally high number of friends are more likely to be one of your friends.

I love a good paradox.

Particularly for finding new ideas for innovation. I remember former P&G CEO AG Lafley searching for paradoxes in his markets – apparent contradictions in consumer behaviour, two aspirations much seemed impossible together, and then seizing on it as the opportunity to innovate.

But paradoxes equally occur in the process of innovation. However hard you try to design the perfect innovation machine, it will always be the outlier ideas, people or solutions which have the greatest impact. They add abnormality to routine normality. They inject creative divergence. They break the rules.

A recent Forbes article described 12 paradoxes of the innovation process:

1. Innovative organisations have strong innovation machines but recognize that some of the best ideas come from outside the machine … think of 3M’s Post-it Notes that emerged from an insight watching page markers fall out of church hymn books.

2. Big, disruptive ideas are alluring, but small, incremental ideas often pay the bills … think of Apple’s profitable evolution rather than revolution under Tim Cook, after the blockbuster years of Steve Jobs. Air Pods were probably the biggest innovation.

3. Small, incremental ideas often pay the bills, but big, disruptive ideas may be necessary to secure an organisation’s place in the long-term … think of Google’s moonshot program, seeking to find the big ideas to change paradigms and leap forwards.

4. Siloes can be anathema to innovative thinking, but are often necessary for depth and execution … at BDS, the Singapore-based bank, the customer service teams were able to go much deeper in understanding service issues, and innovating new solutions.

5. Process creates discipline, but also can suffocate good ideas … so many good ideas are killed during a process that has checks and metrics designed to deliver convention not innovation, the best ideas rarely survive a core business treatment.

6. Psychological safety breeds better cultivation of ideas, but innovation is measured by results … but which results? If you seek short term sales glory, you are rarely going to have the time to create the future, or engage the outlier audiences.

7. Communication around innovation is key internally, but confidentiality is necessary to keep ideas from external competitors … the secret becomes so secretive that it never spreads, staff are some of your best ambassadors.

8. Failing fast and learning fast reduce wasted time, energy, and money, but artifacts allow for future reconstitution and re-use … every failure is partly a success, a small step forwards even if it doesn’t feel like it.

9. Timing of ideas is essential, but an idea that fails one year can succeed in another under different circumstances or with the right tweaks … hence the importance of having a portfolio of innovations, a cupboard full to unlock at the right time.

10. Cannibalizing existing business represents a threat to orthodoxy, but also prevents competitors from doing so … Coca Cola thought long and hard about entering water and juice categories, but then realised opportunities beats threat.

11. Successful innovation teams include deep content expertise and experience, but also generalists and process experts who look through a different lens and ask new questions.

12. Innovators often feel like imposters, but don’t realise that feeling is part of a growth mindset … look at the way in which Satya Nadella has taken Carol Dweck’s mindset model to reinvent Microsoft … growth mindset is about continues discovery.




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