Many innovation books today are written to teach us new frameworks, strategies or best practices for making innovation work in our organizations. What’s been lacking, however, are business books on how to tackle the people side of innovation. Fortunately for us, Cynthia Barton Rabe has decided to focus on this aspect of the topic in her new book, The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine – and What Smart Companies are Doing About It.
This new book is focused on those aspects of human nature that tend to inhibit innovation. In particular, businesspeople are often prone to “group think” — the tendency to make decisions like the people with whom we work most closely. The effects of group think are well documented, and its effects can be quite debilitating to businesses. What’s less understood, however, is something that Rabe calls “expert think” — the tendency to go along with the tried-and-true methods of those people who are regarded to be the leading experts in the company.
Every organization, Rabe explains, has “filters” through which every new idea must pass. Often, these filters take the form of the organization’ experts — those executives who have the deepest levels of experience and expertise in a given field. These experts can crush new ideas, stifle breakthroughs and kill innovation by limiting the ideas that make it through the “innovation funnel” to those that are well aligned with the company’s existing products, business models and strategies.
“Even companies that on the surface seem to be wide open to new ways of thinking can have such stringent filters in place that few new ideas actually make it to implementation… Think of it this way: A funnel can be wide open at one end, but so narrow and specifically shaped on the other than only those ideas that fit the preconceived mold get through.”
In effect, what we know limits what we can imagine. Filters are useful, up to a point, but they doom an organization to incremental innovation. As Rabe points out, filters can only help organizations get better at what they already do, but they act as formidable barriers to doing something completely different or better.
Rabe’s solution to the problem of expert think is to bring outsiders into the team — people who may know very little about the challenge at hand and therefore were not encumbered by preconceived notions about the firm’s existing business and new opportunities. Since they are not held down by the company’s existing orthodoxy, she has coined the term “zero gravity thinkers” to describe them. The bulk of The Innovation Killer is devoted to explaining what zero gravity thinkers are, how to know if you need them, what their roles are in the organization and how to work productively with them, once you have brought them into your firm.
I have recently started reading this book, and I can’t wait to dive deeper into it in the days and weeks ahead!