Following on from yesterday’s post about leadership failure and the continued reliance on past experience as an indicator of leadership potential (here). The ever thought provoking Bill Taylor posted a blog (here) on HBR questioning the value or relevance of industry knowledge when it comes to innovation. Taylor argues that in many cases, deep knowledge or expertise of an industry can be an impediment to clear thinking and innovation.
the most effective leaders demonstrate a capacity for vuja dé. We’ve all experienced déjà vu — looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that — looking at a familiar situation (a field you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. If you believe, as I do, that what you see shapes how you change, then the question for change-minded leaders becomes: How do you look at your organization and your field as if you are seeing them for the first time?
You can’t let what you know limit what you can imagine. As you try to do something special, exciting, important in your work, as you work hard to devise creative solutions to stubborn problems, don’t just look to other organizations in your field (or to your past successes) for ideas and practices. Look to great organizations in all sorts of unrelated fields to see what works for them — and how you can apply their ideas to your problems.
This makes a lot of sense, for example on a personal level when we go to someone for some specific advice, it is often with a view to understand the dangers or risks involved in a particular course of action i.e. a reason not to do something. For organisations this calls into question many innovation programs that are driven from the top down. Innovation is not something that can be conjoured up from thin air within the constraint of existing beliefs and assumptions. The harsh reality for many organisations is that to be truly innovative you need to reject or turn your back on a comfortable and easily referenceable view of the world.
Above all, this approach requires a different mindset, one that is willing to challenge and question underlying assumptions and beliefs. To compound this difficulty, the higher up the corporate ladder you go the harder this becomes. Studies have shown that the more successful and senior we become, the more deeply embedded are our underlying beliefs and behaviours and that these are based on approaches that are successful. In other words thinking and behaviours that have delivered success in the past are the hardest ones to abandon or question. Furthermore, it is a natural trait to look to reference what is familiar and can be directly compared to our current circumstances. However, as the examples cited by Taylor attest, forcing oneself to challenge, question and confront basic assumptions and look beyond most obvious can help unlock the possibilities of true innovation.