Managing The Innovator’s Superstitions

Innovation is part art, part alchemy, part luck and a lot of hard work.

What’s striking about innovators is that even though they are some of the smartest people in the world, they are still human and sometimes do irrational things.

Superstition and Innovation

It should really be no surprise that innovators are superstitious. It’s inherit in the very nature of invention since you are blazing a completely new trail. This uncertainty creates tensions that lead smart, innovative people to revert to basic brain functions and desires to recognize patterns even when patterns may not exist.

Pattern recognition assumes that correlation is causality and that might not be the case when you are innovating something new. The manifestation of these superstations tend to follow some basic patterns like:

  • It won’t work without a certain type of material: This one is classic especially if the material is just the same thing as they got before — it might just be a different color or shape..

  • I need to wear my lucky lab coat, socks, shirt, etc: I know this sounds odd but it does happen and it has a lot to do with feeling confident and comfortable

  • We need to perform the experiment in exactly this way: It’s always good to be consistent but not at the expense of expanding your knowledge base

  • Surely the reason it does not work is (add odd or irrational reason): The odder the reason or the more irrational, the more the person has no clue what is really going on. It’s almost a coping mechanism to distance themselves from the problem.

I know that this seems pretty weird but you would be surprised how superstitious (well maybe the phrase is pattern obsessed) most researchers and innovators are.

You can clearly see this because of the need for double blind studies to avoid bias and the placebo effect that gives positive results even though nothing has happened.

We humans also do something called Cognitive Dissonance which means that we find it hard to hold two contradictory beliefs at once, so we unconsciously adjust one to make it fit the other. This has a profound impact on innovators because most of their work life revolves around sorting out several contradictory ideas at once.

What’s interesting about these behaviors is that it’s a self-fulling proficiency. If people don’t have confidence in the materials, approach or methods they are using, consciously or subconsciously, they will not put their best effort into the experiment, prototype or piece of software. This reinforces the superstitions because the results always come out sub-par.

Taming Superstitions To Get Meaningful Results

Even though we see patterns where they don’t exist and align different concepts so they match, we can setup simple tests and procedures to help us break through these limitations. A list of some of my favorites include:

  • Double blind experiments: This is a great way to eliminate any superstitions because there will be no human (or little) influence on the results

  • A/B testing: Nothing ends a debate about the path to choose like an A/B test. This is especially effective if what you are trying to decide can be easily surveyed

  • Baselining: This involves doing what used to work regularly. That way, you can tell if fundamental things have shifted or it’s the new stuff that’s not working

  • Consistent look and feel: Always try and keep everything looking and feeling consistent. This is especially important for disposable components that are part of other experiments. Anything that might “look funny” will be self selected away from being used or not used effectively

  • Cliff testing: Most of the time, people focus on making stuff better. Cliff testing pushes your invention over a cliff and sees what happens. This is great for setting limits or screen experiments (or designs) for minimum functionality.

  • Check excuses off the list: Sometimes, it’s best to do an experiment or change a setting to get a negative result. That way, it never comes up again. It’s called checking the excuses off the list because there are always people who will say “What about this or that?”

  • Make people feel special or in the know: A lot of innovation is attitude — both toward the work and other people. If you make your innovators feel special and in the know, they will put their best experiments forward instead of holding back for more recognition or “better” material.

  • Focus on the incremental: Most innovators want the big win, silver bullet or home run solution. Most of the time (read like all of the time), that never works. By doing incremental experiments, you eventually get the same result with a lot less problems and wasted effort.

Google has made A/B testing an art form by providing tools that allow anyone to test out what various parameters will do to increase behavior (like click through, etc) and even the color of their Adwords backgrounds was A/B tested. This is a great example of using data and experimentation to best determine a course of action instead of “what feels or looks right.”

Getting Ahead of the Curve

An important part of innovation is getting ahead of the curve. Getting ahead of the curve means that you should push yourself and your team to do experiments, build prototypes and check those excuses off the list. Doing this prepares you for the problems, challenges and deadlines, so you can focus on really getting the innovation done instead of all the reasons it can’t get done (or shouldn’t get done or it will never work or etc.).

Getting ahead of the curve also has the positive effect of not feeling like you are behind — that can create a lot of tension and reduction in overall performance.

It’s a Constant Struggle

Innovation is really on the edge of what is known, understood and comfortable. Out there on the innovation frontier is scary and can make people seek out a comfortable place that is built on half-truths, superstations and old wives tales. This place is comfortable but horrible for innovation. It’s up to those that manage innovation to push people to do their best by managing these superstitions so that the team is data driven instead of feeling driven.


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