This post is an excerpt from the upcoming Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We Stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Watch this space for details on its release.
The ability to make accurate observations may be the most overlooked aspect of innovation and adaptability. It’s a crucial but often misunderstood piece. Extensive research into selective perception and memory reveals that what we think we observe is not nearly as reliable as most of us assume. Our brain works very much the same way as Google. We get what we search for and very little else. So for example, if we’re looking for confirmation of our knowledge, we are likely to find it…while missing those exceptions that might prompt us to rethink.
This tendency is aggravated by our natural tendency to want to look good to ourselves and others, and by the pressure to achieve certain objectives on the job. Our bosses want confirmation that we’re doing our job well, so that’s what we try hardest to find. Research has also found that both teachers and supervisors will tend to confirm either good or bad performance ratings for students and employees, even when those ratings have been assigned at random. So our evaluations of people and situations are clearly biased by prior information.
Taken together, a great deal of research demonstrates that making accurate observations is far harder than it looks. Since learning from the feedback we receive requires good data, this is no small problem. Yet most of us engage in what researchers call naïve realism. We assume that what we see is what happened and what we didn’t see when we were looking didn’t happen.
There are a variety of ways to compensate for some of these problems. They include: comparing our observations to those of others, (Did you see what I saw? Did you notice anything I didn’t?) making specific measurements as in scientific experimentation, and being clear in advance about what we want to observe so we focus our inherently selective attention on what matters most to us. (This is another benefit of the goal setting mentioned in the previous post. What we are trying to accomplish helps us define what’s most important to observe.)
What all of these strategies have in common is a healthy skepticism of what we think we’ve seen or not seen and a willingness to challenge the data and ourselves to catch any exceptions. The need for this should be clear: Looking for confirmation reinforces existing knowledge; looking for exceptions opens us up to new discoveries and insights. Innovation requires that we are attuned to those exceptions, constantly looking for the unexpected, for the surprising.
Inside organizations, this means persistently challenging the status quo. It means looking for evidence of failure even as we pursue excellence and success.
The most skilled innovators have developed a personal discipline of making careful, skeptical observations, and are willing to revise those observations. They are slow to conclude that they have all of the relevant information. That helps to keep them firmly grounded in the realities of the challenges they are trying to overcome, and solving the right problems.
Most of us are less disciplined and more eager to confirm our success, so again we stop ourselves, in this instance from learning as much as we could from our experiences. We choose to confirm when we should be choosing to challenge.