Three powerful words for innovation: “I don’t know”


Three powerful words for innovation: “I don’t know”



In the academy award-winning 2000 movie U-571 – a (fictional) movie about WW2 U-boats, enigma code machines, and a daring undercover mission – a young officer who has just taken command (I’m being deliberately vague in case you haven’t seen the film and want to!) has a crew on his hands which is becoming increasingly anxious. Circumstances have just changed and fear and panic are sweeping through the crew as they start to ask questions about “what the plan (was) now” and “whether or not (they) should go with plan B”. As emotions increase and it is clear that some members of the crew are skeptical about a young inexperienced officer’s ability to lead them to safety, they start screaming “What’s the plan?” (or words to that effect). In frustration, the inexperienced commander yells “I don’t know!”

Soon after, a very experienced, senior (but lower ranking) leader and father-figure sits down with the young commander and says “Never, ever say that to your crew again!”

It’s probably good advice. Anyone in a leadership position knows that typically, for people to be effective, they need to feel that the bigger-picture plan is rock-solid, well-thought-through, and that despite the fact that they themselves might not have all the answers, someone else does.

So, for all sorts of reasons (including wanting everyone to feel secure and committed to ‘the plan’) leaders, justifiably tend to avoid using the words “I don’t know.” This, as stated above, is probably a good thing in many circumstances, however this ‘habit’ of always feeling like one must know can, in some circumstances, have an extremely detrimental effect on innovation.

Perhaps the biggest example is when it comes to customers. I have lost count of the amount of times we have been working on a project with a client, in a workshop or in a discussion, and a question has been asked about why customers behave certain way, or whether customers would be more drawn to “option A” or “option B”, and people start answering the questions based not on robust knowledge, but based primarily on what ‘makes sense’ in their view of the world – or worse, based on their own projection bias.

I have watched decisions being made to kill an idea because someone in a position of authority or influence is confident that customers will behave in a particular way, again based on their particular view of the world, or projection bias, or both! Best-practice exploration, a critical element of innovation, demands that we explore customers’ needs, functional drivers, social and emotional drivers, and that we learn about their behavior based not on what they say they would do, but on what they actually do when given options.

Moreover, we are yet to conduct exploratory research or run a test & learn experiment in which there were not surprising (and extremely interesting and valuable!) customer insights: people never know quite as much about customers as they think they do!

So, my challenge for you here is to see if you can embrace “I don’t know” into your vocabulary. Sure, you won’t use it when you are commanding a submarine, or indeed in many other leadership circumstances, however when it comes to customers, saying those words can provide you with an immediate focus for some exploration – which might lead to your next big innovation! We recently worked with a leadership team that embraced this and it was amazing to see a leader in a workshop, challenge employees by saying “well we actually don’t really know whether or not that is right, why don’t we find out!” As you might expect, the employees were actually excited and motivated by the approach, which has also begun to underpin a critically important cultural shift for the organisation.

If you would like to chat with me about identifying key exploration areas for innovation – or anything else innovation or strategy related, I’d love to hear from you

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