Why You Can’t Innovate

by Tom Koulopoulos

Why You Can't Innovate

We cling dearly to certainty, at virtually any cost–but the cost is often much greater than we realize.

I will warn you at the outset that what I’m about to share is anything but intuitive. In fact you and I share 200,000 years of programming that often conspires against our intuitive desire to innovate.

A recent WSJ article cited a number of new policies that Chinese insurance companies are writing for everything from parking tickets and cloudy skies, to traffic jams and love–yes, Love! Tempting, isn’t it? Imagine if everything uncertain could so easily be turned into an iron clad guarantee. Who among us wouldn’t buy that policy?

The plain truth is that we are obsessed with certainty, in fact we are genetically wired to seek it.

Wired for Certainty

There is little we will not do in the name of security, predictability, and certainty. Why? Simply because our most fundamental instinct and motivation is self preservation. Our ancestors over the past 200,000 years learned to deal with the uncertainty of the world by developing patterns of behavior that are still very much with us today. Those who survived did so because they ran from the uncertain and learned to control their environment.

Simply put, certainty gives us a playbook by which to survive. Follow the rules and you can stay in the game.

But what if I was to tell you that it is precisely that instinctive drive which almost always prevents us from innovating, growing, and evolving? Our Homo Sapien ancestors didn’t have the luxury of living long enough to make strategic investments in their future. For them losing a bet on uncertainty didn’t offer much chance for licking your wounds and moving on. Many things have changed over 200 millennia but our instinct to go for the near term benefit of certainty isn’t one of them.

Mortgaging Your Future

In working with hundreds of companies and thousands of individuals I’ve learned to never be surprised at how often we will mortgage our future in exchange for a little bit of certainty in the present.

Which is why it’s no surprise that when you ask, “Why can’t large incumbent players with enormous resources successfully innovate as well as small nimble startups with relatively few resources?” the answer almost always comes down to the appeal of certainty and known patterns, in product and markets, over emerging ones which are uncertain.

In fact, the drive towards certainty actually increases as an organization scales. Why? Well, going back to our Homo Sapiens on the plains of the Savannah, because behavior ends up being driven much more by what you have to lose and protect.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should dismiss the value of certainty, or that you should ignore established patterns of behavior that offer insight into a market, or an individual’s actions and motives. But, at the same time, it’s absolutely critical to stop viewing uncertainty as the enemy.

Here’s why.

Uncertainty = Opportunity

One of the most consistent correlations I’ve observed, when it comes to breakthrough innovation, is between uncertainty and opportunity. When uncertainty goes up so does opportunity–the opportunity to change, to reevaluate, to build new markets, new behaviors, new businesses. It is in the midst of uncertainty that we most often find the courage and the fortitude to reinvent and re-architect our businesses and our lives.

That’s why there is such a legacy of companies that were founded in times high economic uncertainty. A Kaufman study from 2009 found that “more than half of the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were launched during a recession or bear market, along with nearly half of the firms on the 2008 Inc. list of America’s fastest-growing companies.”

So, why the correlation?

My friend Bob Cipriano said it well in a recent Facebook post, which drove home the point by using the analogy of the opening break shot in a pool game,

“The moment the break shot is made and the balls scatter, the game begins. That’s the same with important changes in life. When you hit a moment that is as sudden as the break shot, your orderly life scatters in mere moments…. In front of such change, most people find themselves confused and scared. If I could go back to those points, I’d like to tell them: “The game has begun, so don’t be scared, and enjoy it.”

I’d add that the “break shot” is rarely one we make–so, as hard as it is, be grateful to whoever or whatever makes it for you because it’s turned a page you might never have had the foresight, wisdom, or courage to turn yourself; you’ve just been thrust into the uncertain, don’t waste the opportunity it offers.

The bottom line is that the greatest leaps forward are taken in the midst of uncertainty; it’s when we have the least to lose, when guarantees are the hardest to find, and when the risks we take are just ridiculous enough to break the mold of the patterns we cling to so dearly.

I can guarantee you that no insurance policy has that kind of pay off.

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This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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