Innovators have strong opinions weakly held

Innovators have strong opinions weakly heldInnovators are less myopic than the rest, that’s a fact you can count on. But, what makes them so?

They are willing to change their mind…

A willingness to change ones mind stems from a complete disregard for the status quo, an open mindedness to changes ones methods. As such, the constant juggling with creating the future, a typical innovator ask him/herself  a few questions to avoid strategic myopia:

  • When was the last time I changed my mind?
  • Do I look for evidence that goes against what I currently believe to be true?
  • If I believe something to be true, what evidence would make me change my mind?
  • What have we changed our mind about in the last week?

Well known innovators change their mind all the time. Like Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, insight fully says, “Be stubborn on vision, flexible on details“:

In a way, that is like the nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten. First of all, I think we have gotten pretty lucky recently. You should anticipate a certain amount of failure. Our two big initiatives, AWS and Kindle two big, clean-sheet initiatives have worked out very well. Ninety-plus percent of the innovation at Amazon is incremental and critical and much less risky. We know how to open new product categories. We know how to open new geographies. That doesn’t mean that these things are guaranteed to work, but we have a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge. We know how to open new fulfillment centers, whether to open one, where to locate it, how big to make it. All of these things based on our operating history are things that we can analyze quantitatively rather than to have to make intuitive judgments.

When you look at something like, go back in time when we started working on Kindle almost seven years ago. There you just have to place a bet. If you place enough of those bets, and if you place them early enough, none of them are ever betting the company. By the time you are betting the company, it means you haven’t invented for too long.

If you invent frequently and are willing to fail, then you never get to that point where you really need to bet the whole company. AWS also started about six or seven years ago. We are planting more seeds right now, and it is too early to talk about them, but we are going to continue to plant seeds. And I can guarantee you that everything we do will not work. And, I am never concerned about that. We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.

But. if you get to a point where you look at it and you say look, we are continuing invest a lot of money in this, and it’s not working and we have a bunch of other good businesses, and this is a hypothetical scenario, and we are going to give up on this. On the day you decide to give up on it, what happens? Your operating margins go up because you stopped investing in something that wasn’t working. Is that really such a bad day?

So, my mind never lets me get in a place where I think we can’t afford to take these bets, because the bad case never seems that bad to me. And, I think to have that point of view, requires a corporate culture that does a few things. I don’t think every company can do that, can take that point of view. A big piece of the story we tell ourselves about who we are, is that we are willing to invent. We are willing to think long-term. We start with the customer and work backwards. And, very importantly, we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.

I believe if you don’t have that set of things in your corporate culture, then you can’t do large-scale invention. You can do incremental invention, which is critically important for any company. But it is very difficult if you are not willing to be misunderstood. People will misunderstand you.

Any time you do something big, that’s disruptive – Kindle, AWS – there will be critics. And there will be at least two kinds of critics. There will be well-meaning critics who genuinely misunderstand what you are doing or genuinely have a different opinion. And there will be the self-interested critics that have a vested interest in not liking what you are doing and they will have reason to misunderstand. And you have to be willing to ignore both types of critics. You listen to them, because you want to see, always testing, is it possible they are right?

But if you hold back and you say, No, we believe in this vision, then you just stay heads down, stay focused and you build out your vision.

Innovators have strong opinions but experiment to change course and adapt

The reason you should anticipate changing your mind is because creating the future doesn’t happen in a straight line; it’s a non-linear activity. And the reason it is so hard to change ones mind is because humans deal with the fear of uncertainty by looking for confirmation around them of what they believe to be true; a phenomenon commonly known as confirmation bias.

Thus, by never questioning assumptions they fail to adapt to changing conditions, I believe confirmation bias is a major reason why most businesses eventually fail. So, how can leaders avoid confirmation bias and be more adaptable?

Experimentation is a prerequisite for adaptability. That’s why organizations must experiment more; that’s the short answer.

Bottom line: As a business leader, you have to make tough decisions. Be flexible on the details, but stay true to the ultimate vision you believe in. This is business-as-usual for innovators; but not for the majority of entrepreneurs.

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