Why you suck at innovation
Is cognitive bias spoiling your process?
I cut my teeth on product design in 2017 when I joined a business incubator. I still remember the job listing that lured me in. I was about to seal the deal with a sports apparel brand as a digital designer, but I couldn’t get myself to “just do it”. Not after I stumbled upon this unusual opportunity. It sounded like a generalist’s dream. It said that I’d be working with some of the hottest startups on one of the busiest canal streets in Amsterdam. That I’d be a mediator, standing at the intersection of multiple disciplines such as design, art direction, marketing, and research. It promised creative freedom, no “bullshit” meetings, and an opportunity to build something from the ground up. And so I applied.
A couple of interviews later I signed the contract, hopping right onto a rollercoaster ride. But unpredictable as it was, this job taught me invaluable lessons about the cutthroat world of startups and innovation. Not long after being surrounded by all sorts of entrepreneurs and product teams, who were trying to accomplish the same thing, I picked up on a pattern. I watched rational, inventive, and intelligent people, as they made one impulsive and destructive decision after the other. With so much at stake, it just didn’t make any sense. They wanted innovation and creativity, but their choices created one obstacle after the other. Until most were left with something average at best, and nothing at worst.
At first, I rationalized their behavior as some form of inexperience. But after moving on I continued to see more experienced companies and individuals fall back on the same irrational and destructive decision-making style when it comes to innovation. Being the behavioral enthusiast that I am, I decided to put an end to this mystery. I wanted to know, what is it about innovation that triggers so much self-sabotage? And most importantly, how can it be prevented?
Innovation spoiler one: False uniqueness bias
In that beautiful canal house, on one of the busiest streets in Amsterdam, I met many talented individuals with great ideas. Although their products and services were entirely different, they had one thing in common. They were dead certain that their idea was groundbreaking—a one in a million. And even though most of them had some kind of arch enemy, a product that was similar and sometimes more evolved than theirs, they continued to believe that what they had to offer was more special, and therefore, better. I watched most of them lose their funding and go out of business.
But they’re not an exception. We all like to think of ourselves, our experiences, and our ideas as special. It’s what gives us our unique sense of identity. But it can also be a major obstacle and shortcoming in innovation. This is all thanks to false uniqueness bias. It’s the bias that fuels the flames of our egotism. It makes us overfocus on what we think is different and great about us, which of course includes our ideas.
A study designed to understand egocentric biases in market-entry decisions discovered that founders focused much more on personal skill and internal factors (e.g. confidence in myself, confidence in the business itself) than they did on external factors (e.g concern about the competition). When measuring their odds of success, participants leaned far too much on easily available data, information about themselves, and/or their own abilities. Meanwhile, neglecting to factor in other valuable information, such as the ability of their competition or market changes. This led to them feeling much more confident about themselves than they should have.
This is not to say that confidence is destructive. What’s destructive, however, is failing to challenge that confidence, and drawing immediate conclusions from it. Just because you’re feeling certain it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be. It all depends on where that feeling of certainty is coming from. Is it there after you’ve weighed all the options? Or because your mind took a shortcut and decided to focus on some convenient options and not others? What this study demonstrates is that it’s very human to jump to conclusions using easily available information only. And what’s more available than the information we have about ourselves?
I’m not suggesting you spend your days obsessing over your competition or doubting yourself. That too is a pitfall. What I’m suggesting is that you continue to challenge your ideas even when they feel extraordinary. And to look for information that can counter your current beliefs and assumptions. Be it through thorough competitive analysis, and unbiased external advice in the form of consultation. Or by testing your ideas with a curious and open mind, instead of testing for validation aka confirmation. Every time I hear someone say “we need to validate X and Y” I can tell that innovation has left the building and that confirmation bias is in the driving seat. Instead of validating, test to learn and discover. Yes, your amazing ideas might get rejected. Yes, it might take more time and make stakeholders angsty. But what you’ll be getting in return is the truth, instead of strokes to your ego and fuel for your bias.
Innovation spoiler two: Pro-innovation bias
Nowadays, when we hear the word innovation we assume that it’s somehow related to technology. But is technology the only path to innovation? We tend to think that we live in a different world, a world ruled by tech, but we’re not. We still live in the same idea and story-driven world we’ve been living in since the first human managed to convince their tribe that shells make a great currency. Fast forward to now, their far descendant has managed to convince their tribe to invest in crypto. But if you strip cryptocurrency from its story, or if everyone involved decides to stop believing in it, you’ll just end up with is a bunch of worthless code. The point I’m trying to make is this, stories create movement and buy-in, not technology.
Technology is a tool, one of many. And in a lot of cases it’s neither a precondition nor should it be dictating the entire process. I watched many startups overestimate their need for tech. They would often jump into building a complex app as the ultimate solution to their users’ problem and then would get stuck there, pilling up features and optimizing themselves into a dead-end. Similarly, they would underestimate and underinvest in two important pillars of innovation, unbiased explorative research and a good story to peddle their product.
Pro-innovation bias makes technology feel like the immediate and only solution. It often puts it at the center of the entire process. This bias likes to sway us in the direction of whatever is new at the moment. It also makes us think of novelty and “newness” as inherently good and useful. But like all biases, it’s a shortcut. The reality is that technology is moving at the speed of light, so if you anchor your entire process to something that is always moving, you might spend the rest of your days playing catch up. Now let’s go back to the business incubator for a minute.
What I noticed is that often there was no real need for a complicated product. I remember learning during one investigation that our users were really busy and always short on time. While we were developing a complicated tool that required a lot of time to learn, set up, and then populate with data. During interviews, people said they liked the product, and they usually do thanks to the observer effect). But in reality, they would have no time for it. Another product team spent a good amount of money and effort designing an algorithm that provided tailor made travel recommendations. But the end product depended on a 3 pages long questionnaire and needed the user’s email to deliver the results. Turns out most people didn’t want to bother going through the hassle and were perfectly fine getting non-personalized recommendations from social media. They too said they loved the product. They too didn’t use it.
Yes, tech is hot. And yes it’s everywhere. But your sophisticated product or state-of-the-art interface might be a hurdle for your end-user. A study designed to understand resistance to innovation discovered that there are seventeen barriers to adopting innovative solutions. Seventeen! So while you, a founder or creative thinker, might be biased towards choosing the most seemingly innovative option, your users’ minds are riddled with barriers to resist it. This is why the most valuable question you will have to answer in the pursuit of innovation is not “how fast can we build and future proof this?”. But “should we be building this at all?” and “can we prove that people will actually use it beyond their confirmation?”. And when I say ‘prove’ I’m not talking about blindly trusting the results of a survey. I’m talking about understanding the current problem and mindset of your users so well that you can seamlessly fit your product into their life without disrupting it.
Innovation spoiler three: Ambiguity bias
A lot of the people who I’ve met at the incubator, and in the world of startups and innovation, chose that route because they were adventurous and unconventional. They wanted to opt-out of what was the norm and create a new standard. And then most of them ended up conforming. I watched them lean on tried and tested methods and fall back on predictable processes. Why? Because the alternative wasn’t as guaranteed. After all, they needed solid numbers and projections to share with their investors. So when things started to feel uncertain they did their best to stir things back into predictability. I wonder how many times they were on the verge of a breakthrough only to pull themselves back into mediocrity.
Innovation is risky, it’s scary and unknown. In fact, if it’s not uncomfortable it’s not new, and if it’s not new it’s not innovation. It’s impossible to walk a path of least resistance while looking for uncharted territory. That’s not going to happen. But ambiguity bias will continue to stir you back towards the comfortable and the familiar because it’s there to protect you from the unknown. You see, there was a time when the unknown was potentially fatal to our species, and ambiguity bias has done a great job at helping us survive. These days, however, it keeps us from thriving. Whether you like it or not, chances are that you are being subconsciously pulled away from original solutions and ideas because you are evolutionarily designed to avoid the unfamiliar. And consequently, the novel.
This bias is also why so many businesses profit from selling innovation as a prepackaged solution, a one size fits all guaranteed process. But that too is a fallacy, the assumption that one process can continuously produce groundbreaking results. And yet companies desperate for innovation continue to buy into these solutions instead of experimenting on their own and finding out what works for them. The alternative feels too uncertain, and worst of all, what if they fail? That would be bad, wouldn’t it? At least that’s what our mind tells us because in addition to being aversive to the uncertainty we are also loss-aversive. We’d rather produce mediocre results and have something than risk losing everything.
Speaking of tried and tested methods, let’s take a look at Design Thinking for a moment—the holy grail of innovation in design. Design thinking is a process of five clear steps. It tells us to: empathize with users to understand their needs, define the problem through insights, ideate based on insights, prototype the idea, and test to get feedback, then repeat these steps as many times as necessary to refine. If you look closely, the third step (ideate) remains at the core of the creative process. It’s been there since the dawn of history. This is the step where innovation materializes. Take it away and all you have is a stack of quantitative or qualitative data. Ironically, ideation is also the step where innovation often goes to die, because of ambiguity bias.
Take brainstorming and design critiques for example, which are common ideation tools. Both tend to get hijacked by groupthink. During these conversations, original ideas often get cast out by the group for being too radical or unscalable. In other words, too ambiguous. Another barrier to ideation is functional fixedness, which prevents teams from imagining new possibilities. Because once again they’re too ambiguous in comparison to what is familiar. If you’re not addressing your approach to ideation then no amount of Design Thinking will save you. It might get you delicious insights from users. But they won’t be worth much if you don’t allow yourself, and your team, to experiment and flirt with ambiguity. And potentially, with innovation.
Unspoiling your process
Despite how I’ve framed them here, biases are not bad. They are mental shortcuts that have benefited our species, they have saved us time and mental energy. They helped us survive. But they won’t always help us thrive, nor will they help us innovate. Now that you’ve met the ones that might be spoiling your process the decision is entirely yours: do you want to survive? Or do you want to challenge your bias and thrive? If you want the latter then you should start thinking of biases as helpful cues. You need to bias-proof your process to prevent them from running the show.
For false uniqueness bias:
Challenge this bias by widening your lens. Do not over-rely on information about your own abilities or the abilities of your team. And most importantly, avoid validating your design and ideas. Instead, test them in the spirit of exploration and learning. My personal go-to research bible is Erika Hall’s Just enough research.
For pro-innovation bias:
Before jumping into investing in tech, get to know your users and their problem really well. The time and money you will spend on explorative research, ideation, and creating a compelling story is the time and money you will save on building overly complex solutions that no one will want to use or buy. Or the way Seth Godin put it: “Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.”
If you want innovation then you also need to start making peace with discomfort and uncertainty. When fear comes knocking in the shape of ambiguity and loss-aversion, acknowledge it for what it is: your survival instincts kicking in. Since survival is also the opposite of creativity, this might be a good time to take yourself out of the picture and trust your team to experiment and learn on your behalf. After all, they have less to lose. And if you’re working solo, or if you’re not the decision-maker, take a break no matter how difficult it might feel. It’s impossible to make creative decisions when we’re stuck in fear.
And I will leave you with the biggest innovation killer of all: shame. The people I’ve watched succeeding are incredibly shame resilient. They endured failure, scrutiny, and judgment for their unconventional ideas and choices. But they didn’t think of it as bad or wrong—to them, it was just part of the process. So if you’re worried about being liked more than being true to yourself, or if you’re ashamed of failure, then remember this: “Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.”