Situation: A major problem with a service not meeting the needs of customers. If you don’t innovate you will be deeper in trouble or out of business.
Answer: Assemble a team of subject matter experts to promote innovation.
Result: A deep focus upon improving what already exists but nothing very innovative.
Why this happens is all perfectly reasonable and logical. You have a difficult, high risk situation and who do you ask to drive the innovation? Experts who have worked in this area before or someone with no experience in the field? Obviously you choose the experts, a trusted pair of hands. This is where problems can arise, people trying to develop a novel solution based upon what they already know. Would it be better to try something completely different?
Here are two reasons why you might want to avoid total reliance on subject matter experts when you are trying to encourage innovation.
Experts have patterns of how to do things. This comes from the process of how we become experts. I’ve mentioned this before in connection with London Cab Drivers and ‘The Knowledge’. Experts go through an extended process of learning, doing and understanding which fixes patterns in the brain and a certain way of doing things. When it comes to dealing with a new problem, experts will try to impose the best fit pattern based on what they already know. Breaking the influence of these patterns takes a huge conscious effort, almost like ‘un-learning’ what you already know.
Knowledge is power. This might be a bit more controversial but not every expert is open to new ideas or happy to be questioned. You do see the occasional subject matter expert that will kill off all new ideas in case they undermine their status and power base. I mentioned this in my post about Idea Antibodies.
So what can you do about it? It’s easy to say “be aware of your behaviours”, but how many of us actually do that, particularly if there are strong subconscious factors at work. Here are three suggestions I picked up from Dave Snowden at this seminar last week.
Get Belbin Resource Investigators to run the Innovation Team. Have a look at the Belbin website on Team styles for a full explanation, but essentially Resource Investigators think that ‘someone else has the answer’. As a result they are prepared to listen to people, continually look around and borrow ideas from elsewhere. A bit of a Curious George and a desirable member of any innovation team.
Introduce Naive Experts. This is an expert from another field that can ask the naive questions, the neurobiologists who asks the question of the astrophysicist etc. This is one of the concepts associated with the coworking movement where conversations between unconnected individuals have created serendipitous outcomes.
Send Experts ‘Back to the Floor’ (or better still a different floor). This is quite a radical suggestion and I suspect a few experts would hate this. The benefits of experiencing things from a different point of view might help disrupt a few of the existing brain patterns and help with accepting new ideas.
There is a huge need for subject matter experts; I’m not saying we can do without them, quite the opposite. It is the balance of experts I am questioning. If there are too many of the same type of experts, all with deep knowledge and well-developed patterns of thinking about a specific area of activity it can be a problem. This can work against the introduction of new ideas, subconsciously or consciously. If you don’t believe me have a look at this video about the discovery of Longitude. Introducing something different into the innovation team and allowing new ideas to flourish has to be a good thing.
So, what’s the PONT?
- Experts are absolutely essential; it is the balance in innovation teams I am questioning.
- As with any other team the range of styles used by people needs to be considered.
- Naive experts and others need to be involved in innovation teams to ensure you get a diverse range of ideas.
Picture Source: Curious George, the perfect member for your innovation team.