Thursday, March 27, 2008

Old Idea Evaluation Habits Die Hard

On YouTube there are two short sketches which show three cavemen evaluating new, disruptive ideas. In both cases, they are ideas which have been valuable for thousands of years, namely, the wheel and fire. Unfortunately the fictitious cavemen are unable to recognise the value contained in these ideas, and both are discarded.

The point that these satirical films are making is that it is very difficult to evaluate ideas which are so new to us that they do not fit into our established world view. If we cannot relate the idea to things we already know and understand, then we are not able to recognise the potential that it represents.

We observe this phenomenon frequently in innovation projects with our clients. We have seen experts reject good ideas simply because they are not compatible with their subjective image of their company or area of expertise. In other cases, the advantages of ideas do get recognised, but they are rejected anyway, because they "do not fit".

Innovation researcher Clayton Christensen has treated this phenomenon in his influential book The Innovator's Dilemma. In it, he describes an organisation's
value system - a set of rules, assumptions and traditions which exert a strong influence on all the decisions that are made in that organisation - in particular decisions for or against proposed innovations. This leads to the apparent paradox, that it is the most successful companies with the best leadership and management that are least able to pursue disruptive innovations. This is the core of the well-known Innovator's Dilemma.

The following self-critical questions are useful when an idea is about to be rejected:

  1. Are we absolutely sure that we know and understand all the advantages of this idea? Under what circumstances would these advantages be irrefutable?

  2. Are we about to discard this idea just because it doesn't fit our current self-image in some way? Is it perhaps time to update that image?

The second caveman sketch can be found here on YouTube.

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