Iteration is not just about improving products and services and customer intelligence and profitability—as important as those things are. It’s about improving our thinking. What most distinguishes highly successful innovators from those who struggle, is their skill at systematically revising their own mental models—at iterating what’s happening inside their heads.
Most of us spend our lives pursuing knowledge when what we really need is insight. Throughout our education and our careers we strive to learn things that we hope will bring us success. While knowledge is certainly important, a great insight will beat it every time.
We don’t yet understand the inner workings of our brains well enough to guide the prescribe of innovation processes and techniques. But we do understand what attitudes, assumptions and beliefs are productive and counterproductive. And that may be even more useful.
We hear a lot these days about mass customization as a consumer trend, about how technology now allows us to mass produce products that are customized to the needs and desires of individual consumers. So, why stop with consumer products? To fuel innovation, we need to be talking about mass customization...of people.
There’s a prevalent and long-perpetuated myth about innovators, that they are persistent; they don’t give up. Renowned innovators like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison have even said it of themselves, crediting their success in part on their persistence. But it’s at best a poor choice of words and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what innovation entails, even by some of its best practitioners.
What most distinguishes the innovation high performers from the less innovative is not some indiscernible secret sauce of mental faculties. What distinguishes them is their mindset. That is to say: their attitudes, assumptions and beliefs—their mental models—about how the world works. These mental models are often subconscious. Yet they can have a huge impact on someone’s behavior and therefore how well they perform—and innovate.
We now live in a world in which not only our economic future, but our future security rests in large part on our creativity, our capacity to innovate. It’s yet another reason why strengthening our competence as innovators is such an imperative.
Great innovations are often based on powerful intuitions, but we all know examples of someone thinking they have a great intuition and being misguided. So where does intuition fit into innovation and how do we know when we can rely on it?
Innovation is different from other business competencies because it’s not about extending our expertise; it’s about repeatedly revising our expertise, at times rethinking our most fundamental assumptions and beliefs about our business. We need to recognize that when we encounter new information and observations, we must constantly check to be sure that when we see a cat we don’t assume that it’s just another doggie.
If we want sustained robust innovation in our companies and economies, at the very least we need to stop treating our creativity like something with an on/off switch. We need to recognize creativity as the sustained cognitive function it is and the sustained business function it needs to become…always on.