break out

Why you need to break out of your network to innovate

break out

Yesterday @JuhaLipponen shared his post on how gathering people from diverse backgrounds to brainstorm breeds new and fresh insights. This idea of bringing in outsiders to shake things up isn’t new, but it’s definitely one that you don’t find being practiced more widely.

And this brings me to an important point about innovation: Where all think alike no one thinks very much.

You can start seeing this on the web where the tools we use to communicate and find information (Facebook, Google, Twitter) play into our biases of familiarity. The more we use them, the more they know us and become personalized for us.

If in the past you hadn’t thought about this, today it’s even more imperative that you do. Why?

Because as @elipariser argues in his book The Filter Bubble, these tools use algorithms that ‘personalize’ your experience. And the more you use them, the more familiar they become. In other words, they’ll box you in.

Watch his TED Talk is you haven’t already:

Familiarity breeds contempt

This doesn’t work well for finding new ideas, new points of view. It doesn’t work well for protecting you from getting outside the box, getting out of your own way.

For example, I haven’t used Facebook consistently for the last 3 years. Ever since I started noticing that my news feed was being manipulated by an algorithm, I stopped using it. Another reason why I don’t use Facebook is because it’s meant to connect you with people who you already know. Not with people who you would like to know. That’s what Twitter is for.

It’s not that I don’t like my friends, it’s just that I already know how they think and they don’t really challenge my thinking.

Because what Facebook does is it further reinforces your box. The box that provides comfort and familiarity. Your family and close circle of friends all contribute to your support system, a place where you can find comfort. It’s a system that reinforces your world view of things.

New insights are not found in the mainstream

The network that you have and have had for awhile is already locked in to the mainstream. Letting algorithms control your experience means you’re already missing important insights. And these insights are found outside your immediate network of family and friends. When was the last time you talked with your family about how the internet is like a living organism and how it compares to how organizations are traditionally run?

Exactly!

You want to hang out (at least for a little bit) with people who are not like you. You want to break that pattern of familiarity before it becomes an echo chamber of nonsense.

On Twitter you follow interests, on Facebook you friend people you already know. Still Twitter has the same problem…

Step out of the echo chamber

Because on Twitter it’s very easy to find people with the same interests, pretty soon you’ll accumulate a long list of people who tweet the same stuff. It’s becomes repetitive. And if you pay close attention you’ll see people adopting other people’s views rather quickly.

As humans we are hardwired to like familiarity. We like confirmation that whatever it is that we’re doing is right. But if all you do is talk to the same people all the time, we get more of the same ideas. We’ll be constantly reinforcing our views and our perception of things will remain the same.

This not only happens online, it happens at networking events and at industry conferences too. It seems like every other industry conference is talking about the same thing…

It’s not just people who need to break out

When an organization starts out, it starts building a network of customers, suppliers, partners and other institutions to help it succeed. This network promotes predictability of operation, repeating a tried and true business model over and over again.We become successful because we have strong relationships with business partners, because we understand what our customers and employees want from us, because we share many of the same goals as our company or institution, and because we have learned from departments and colleagues what it takes to succeed. These relationships become deeply integrated into a tight network supporting similar values.

Clayton Christensen calls these types of networks ‘value networks’. And it’s why we build networks in the first place. But it is this same network that holds companies back when they want to pursue non-linear ideas.

You network will promote, support and highlight ideas that are valued within it. And it squashes and removes ideas that are not. If you want to see what nobody sees, you need to break out of your network.

That’s why you see SkunkWork teams work outside a companies boundaries and operate freely. They have to build a new network, one that takes created with a different set of assumptions about the future.

If we go back an look at the personal characteristics of innovators we find that:

  • we need to free associate.
  • we need to network with people who are different that us.

Both these qualities are related very closely because if you don’t expose yourself and talk to people who are different than you (network), the less likely you are to find new unrelated connections to make (association).

In order to innovate we have to generate new connections between ideas. We can’t do this if all of our routines only expose us to viewpoints that are very similar to our own.

Hopefully I’ve helped make it a little more clear to you why it’s important to get uncomfortable and seek out ideas from outside your box.

Bottom line: Take advantage of the filters that exists, but filter that yourself. This is important because getting spoon-fed knowledge is easy these days, but breaking it down and synthesizing it is a skill that is in high demand.

Think for yourself, make up your own mind.

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Next Article

Are Little Bets a recipe for better innovation?

Google and Mozilla take an experimental approach to innovation. Using experiments to test their assumptions and inform how their products will work.
  • Excellent post, Jorge!

    At the end it comes down to continuously challenging our inner and outer status quo to remain growing. As you mention, people are hardwired to embrace familiarity, certainty and repetition. We need to spend a significant amount of energy to consciously leave our “box” by exposing ourselves to the unfamiliar or by dealing with the future – which is a priori uncertain. We are required to cope with this tension day by day.     

    I’m currently reading “Innovation – The Missing Dimension” by Lester & Piore (in parallel to “Little Bets” by Peter Sims ;-). It’s about balancing analytical and interpretive approach to innovation and quite related to the issue here. Analytical management is about making decisions and choices as well as setting priorities. But we also need to make sure that the range of choices isn’t too narrow – which requires a different approach. Otherwise we choose the best alternative of a bad lot.

    I think innovation – personal and organizational – always has to deal with some kind of ambidexterity. One key skill for innovation is to integrate ambidexterity and to successfully master tensions. 

    Cheers, Ralph

    • Hi Ralph,

      Thanks!

      No doubt about it. Interesting book, I’m going to pick it up. The keyword that stands out from your comment is ‘consciously’, meaning you have be alert at falling into mental biases and getting pulled by the flow. I think this is what is

      It’s always interesting to me how people confuse prediction with anticipation. I think there should be more emphasis on anticipation though that won’t eliminate the ‘stress’ of uncertainty.

      Anticipating user needs requires immersion, a high degree of empathy and imagination.The Little Bets approach connects the analytical with the experimental. But still we have to deal with the fact that people don’t like making small bets. They see it as a waste of time.

      How do you manage this tension?

      Cheers,

      Jorge

      • That’s indeed a good question.

        The “Little Bets” approach is built around the question: “What can I afford to loose?” Interestingly, Sims writes in the book that research has found a two to one “fear-of-loss to pleasure-of-gain” ratio.

        What does this mean?

        I think it’s an indication that people tend to focus on preventing failures, rather than on making wins. That’s what Tim Harford tries to emphasize in his FT post: There’s safety in small numbers!
        http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/bd0280c2-8bee-11e0-854c-00144feab49a.html#axzz1OryYTxGb
        Although we are aware that little bets might be highly effective and efficient, our brain inhibits to behave accordingly as it rates every little bet as potential failure – which has twice the weight of a potential win.

        Again, in order to keep the chance on highest likelihood of success, we need to (consciously) behave against our biases. Intuitively (but misleadingly), this seems more acceptable if the number of attempts are low. Furthermore, I’m not sure whether internal resistance scales linearly with objective degree of risk – subjective scale might be shrinked.

        Back to your question: I think to overcome this tension, to get little bets more applied, people need to become conscious about the economical benefits as well as the fact that there is basically no other reasonable approach if uncertainty and lacking information prevails. And need to behave according to this insight.

        Most likely, it’s like learning a new behavior – you feel strange at the beginning but it becomes second nature with time.

        What do you think?

        Cheers, Ralph          

        • Hi Ralph,

          Great points and thanks for laying it out.

          Adding to your comment this makes me think about the loss aversion bias. Although it’s not implicit, I can’t help but think it plays a role.

          This also makes me think about ‘grit’. Having to deal with highs and lows and overcoming them. It also makes me think about creating the expectation of failure and how to go about doing that. As you point out, Little bets (experimentation) plays a role in preventing failures, but it’s also a way of making wins.

          Personally I get a kick out of experimenting and finding out something is not going to work before I fully commit to it. Why? Because it’s one less thing I have to think about. It’s a win.

          I remember on the first startup I was a part of, I experimented a quite a lot. One of the co-founders thought of it as a waste of time (loss aversion?) because it didn’t lead to any ‘immediate’ results. I saw it the other way around, as in something less to think/worry about. And even as I explained to her my POV and shared my insights with her, she saw no value. That is until the business folded and she started reflecting and I brought up those conversations and how some of the stuff that I had ‘experimented’ with had actually informed us of danger two years prior. Maybe if we would’ve used some of those insights things would have come out differently. I know, it sounds dramatic but it’s true 🙂

          I think that self and situational awareness is key to create that expectation of failure, to have clarity and deal with the highs and lows.

          Thoughts?

          Cheers,

          Jorge

          • Ralph-Christian Ohr

            I think you’re decribing the difference between fixed and gowth mindset here 😉

            Actually, the co-founder and you should have been a good combination as your views were quite complementary:
            – experimenting vs. analytical
            – exploring vs. exploiting,
            – long/mid term vs. short term-orientation.

            Unfortunately, she didn’t share the insight that this combination is a promising prerequisite to keep the boat on course. This includes valuing and leveraging your approach in the respective context. Particularly, future-oriented decisions need to be supported by experimentation as they lack in relevant information and certainty.

            There might be natural differences in being comfortable with experimentation. However, basically everybody should be able to cognitively understand the benefits of experimentation and behave accordingly – in his/her own favor.

            Further thoughts?

            Cheers, Ralph 

          • Hi Ralph,

            You are right. We’re actually great friends now and work very well together. But still, there’s tension between following best practices and experimenting new approaches.

            Interestingly, after I finished a meeting today I got myself thinking that everyone has a different understanding, much like innovation, of what experimentation is.

            There’s a lot of work to do 🙂

            Thanks for the comments,

            Jorge

          • Hi Ralph,

            You are right. We’re actually great friends now and work very well together. But still, there’s tension between following best practices and experimenting new approaches.

            Interestingly, after I finished a meeting today I got myself thinking that everyone has a different understanding, much like innovation, of what experimentation is.

            There’s a lot of work to do 🙂

            Thanks for the comments,

            Jorge

  • Kevin Mcfarthing

    Hi Jorge, good post.  All too often the people we mix with at work are those who make us feel the most comfortable.  Talking to new people is like folding your arms in the opposite direction – it feels weird for most people!  

    How many times have you been to a conference and found that all the people from the same company stand together at the break?It’s in the profile – if you’re curious, you’ll seek out new things, you’ll get different perspectives, you’ll improve and so will the quality of your work, whether that’s innovation or not.Kevin

    • Hi Kevin (@innovationfixer:twitter),

      Thanks.

      There should be a rule of not to mingle with your colleagues at conferences. Get away from me, go talk to strangers ha! I mean seriously.

      Anyhow we have to make a conscious effort to talk to all kinds of people including kids.

      Thanks again,

      Jorge

  • Great post, thanks!  I have a Twitter list of great people I classify under “Totally Niche.”  They definitely break out of that echo chamber of my wonderful “social media” universe and help me think about  things I wouldn’t ordinarily think about (e.g., sand castle builders, wine folk, race car drivers, etc.)  Today I connected with an expert in telematics – very cool, smart person.

    @johnsonwhitney directed me to this post with her tweet – and I plan to RT it!

    • Hi Susan,

      Interesting. I haven’t built my one ‘niche’ list so I’m going to start following that list of yours. Thanks for the pointer 🙂

      Thanks for the retweet!

      Cheers,

      Jorge

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