Technology is Killing Innovation

No one has time for interruptions these days. We do everything we can to avoid the unexpected. Caller ID prevents unplanned conversations. ATMs eliminate superfluous face to face interactions. Amazon wish lists negate unnecessary shopping and returns. Technology has made it possible for us to get exactly what we want when we want it and the way we want it.

By reducing the possibility of encountering the unplanned, has technology diminished the ability to innovate?

Entrepreneurial research indicates that innovation is often driven by the ability to harness the unplanned to create a beneficial outcome. Two things have to be in place to support this:

  1. There has to be unplanned occurrences.
  2. People have to have the skills to leverage them in a positive way.

Dr. Saras Sarasvathy’s research on Effectuation showed that expert entrepreneurs incorporate the element of surprise to advance their ventures. They look at unanticipated events as opportunities to be exploited. In fact, they don’t just roll with the surprise, they often build on them as competitive differentiators.

For example, LL Bean turned a disastrous first product launch into their brand cornerstone by accepting all product returns, sending new, improved products as replacements, and announcing that they would always honor returns for product quality – no matter how long the customer had or used the item. This extreme level of customer service started in the early 1900s but was the platform that allowed the LL Bean company to grow a worldwide brand from a rural outpost in Maine.

Successful entrepreneurs are adept at using surprise because they exercise three characteristics:

  1. Skill. They take smart chances and put themselves in positions to encounter the unexpected. By doing so, they get comfortable with being surprised and they learn how to use it to their advantage.  
  2. Confidence. The more they practice their skill, the better they get. They can feel this. It strengthens their comfort with surprise.
  3. Optimism. Once they see some positive outcomes, they build on it. They see that this works. So they keep at it – in bigger and bolder ways.

These mutually reinforce each other.

In contrast, most corporate managers fear surprise. They do everything possible to eliminate it. From detailed risk management plans and forecasts to the simple task of team building. (Is anyone still surprised by the birthday cake in the break room???) At the office, surprise is something to be avoided and something to be feared. The longer a manager stays in corporate the more this thinking calcifies. Its contagion spreads between teams until it permeates an entire culture.

So how can corporate managers embrace surprise and use it to their innovation advantage?

  1. Acknowledge surprises. Set the tone for your team. They are watching your reaction to the unexpected and will take their behavior cues from you. Talk about your affordable loss at the outset of projects. And when the unexpected does occur, don’t immediately dismiss it. Discuss first if there is a way to leverage it positively before attempting to eliminate it.
  2. Allow room for surprises. Refrain from over-engineering processes. Not everything needs to have a defined method of operation. Just because you can standardize doesn’t mean you should. Be strategic. Understand what your team objectives are and ask what you gain and what you lose before you define a process.    

  3. Cultivate surprises. Develop growth assignments for innovators. Stretch your corporate innovators by putting them on teams outside of their technical and functional expertise where they can encounter new things. Look at lateral opportunities for high potentials. Put them in positions where they will have to react to surprises.  

Technology is removing the unplanned. But it is still possible to put yourself in situations of surprise. Classic movie fans will remember Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther. He paid his assistant to surprise him so that he would always be ready for the unexpected and prepared to act appropriately. Despite his bumbling ways Inspector Clouseau wisely said, “Without warning, I will attack you. In this way, I will keep you vigilant and alert.”

What are you doing to keep your surprise skills sharp? 

--Written by Sara Whiffen, Founder & Managing Partner, Insights Ignited LLC