Hackernoon logoTrue Innovation Requires Being Comfortable With The Unknown by@Rakamtl

True Innovation Requires Being Comfortable With The Unknown

Audrey Raby Hacker Noon profile picture

@RakamtlAudrey Raby


The future is uncertain, disruption happens and needs to be embraced.

Ever since the web blew things apart in the nineties, the consumer journey changed from a linear process to a messy network of touch points. Every one of them is an opportunity to impress just as much as a risk to disappoint. Yet, for most organizations, the same functional silos and old fashioned blue prints still dictate how to tackle these new challenges.

A lot of engineers still believe the customer is the problem because s/he doesn’t understand the design. A lot of marketers still believe ad dollars can increase sales no matter how inappropriate the product might be. Bad ideas get funded and go to market because old processes value iterations more than disruption.

Even when each individual silo gains knowledge from those iterations, from one silo to the next, linear, waterfall-style management prevents real innovation, because it wouldn’t fit within the constraints of the current, “proven” business model. Incrementalism and a focus on quarterly results kill promising ideas for the sake of “risk mitigation.”

Learning can’t happen if you think you already know

As the saying goes, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. It might have worked once, but if it hasn’t in a while, perhaps it’s time to revaluate your business strategy.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, and those who try to resist it will be disrupted. It sounds a lot like buzzwords or some kind of doomsday warning (thank you World Economic Forum), yet it doesn’t matter how you want to call it, the world is evolving, and fast.

To adapt to this changing landscape, the first step is to be willing to take an honest look around and admit what’s really going on. Withholding judgement and adopting a beginner’s mindset is crucial if you wish to uncover real actionable insights. You don’t know the answer before asking the question (repeat)!

If Big Data allows businesses to dig deep, test and validate hypotheses, asking wrong or biased questions will only reinforce the denial in an attempt to avoid painful pivots or restructuration. Whereas most startups don’t have a large customer base with a predefined set of expectations, established companies have come to think of any meaningful change as a risk of losing valuable market shares and accelerating their demise.

Multivariate tests can only show you how your actual customer base reacts and focus on past actions rather than looking forward, and marketing is more often than not a way to pitch to customers instead of interviewing them to gather meaningful insights. Analytics can help you describe what they did, but it won’t tell you why.

Moving towards a culture of learning

In order to move away from assumptions and old patterns, your organization will need to assess its culture in an honest way and without fear of retribution. There has to be no wrong question and no limits to what’s being tested. Learning is an infinite game that doesn’t start and shouldn’t end with school.

To keep it alive, don’t try to constrain your hypotheses because of perceived limitations of what you can test. Innovation can happen when you find new ways of creating what needs to be prototyped instead of adapting the hypothesis to stick to your comfort zone. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re doing it wrong.

Identifying new behaviours and new types of customers will take more than quantitative data. Send your employees in the field, talk to real people with real needs and jobs they need done that you haven’t thought of.

Ask them about them, how they feel, what their habits and workarounds are to compensate for an imperfect solution. Humans, on the individual level, adapt very quickly to their environment; they might not even notice, but they constantly hack their surroundings to match their needs.

Finding out why can allow you to fulfill an unmet need, better perform a job to be done and create value worth paying a premium price.

Don’t settle for insights

Incubators and business accelerators have created an ideacentric culture where the dynamism of an economy can be measured by the number of new startups funded to create jobs and compensate for the death of age-old institutions. Hackathons, forums and design thinking gettogethers are nice, but creativity without the right set of constrains can be lead to a lot of time and money wasted.

Even the greatest R&D labs can miss the point. It’s not just about finding a great idea or even getting things started, it’s about the “last 90%” of work between there and a sustainable model. Labs can be fantastic statements of innovation, but they can also another silo, disconnected from the reality of rest of the organization.

To create impact, we need to seek discovery, not validation. Focus your efforts on finding a balance between feasibility, viability and desirability and kill your darlings when necessary. Exploration and experimentation is about more than technology or functionalities; it’s about how humans can work together, connect and create value.

It starts with the humans you work with and the culture you’ve created as a framework of reference for them. Is your leadership supportive? Do you encourage continuous learning and empower your employees to test and run their own projects? How do you capture new knowledge and insights to ensure nothing gets lost and everyone can participate in creating a culture of innovation?

If you don’t have an innovation strategy or that you can’t answer these questions clearly, it might be time for a checkup. To find out how to leverage opportunities for improvement in culture, infrastructure and activities, the first step is to understand where you’re at today.

Three books you should read

  • Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christenssen
  • Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil
  • The Lean Startup, Eric Ries

Audrey Raby is a strategist, a storyteller a speaker and a mom. She’s also CEO of innovation consulting firm Nash, in Montreal.


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