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Innovation Must Know Limitation

It helps to know tradition if you want to subvert it.

If you want an unparalleled ice breaker for a newly formed team, if you want to warm up the grey matter ahead of a strategy or solution session, if you want insight into how your people think, start with a question. Not just any question. Try this one.

“Think about the constraints and limitations we have in our unit/department/company. Which limitations do you find enabling (the ones that keep us out of trouble)? And which are disabling (the ones that hold us back)?”

I’ve been a fan of deep questions ever since I experienced a “peace corps” style interview when I was quite young. The interview questions literally hurt my head. They described scenarios I may be facing on the job, which included conflict, physical danger, moral dilemmas and ethical compromises. The goal was to grasp the constraints and limitations and respond with workable solutions and creative alternatives. I left the interview with a raging headache, seething with anger for having been put through hell, but I took the job offer when it came. It was difficult and fulfilling work, with many constraints and limitations, as advertised. However, my solutions on the ground were very, very different than what I imagined before I became a part of the organization (except one).

“It helps to know tradition if you want to subvert it.”

As Daniel Dennett writes in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, (by way of Farnam Street blog),“It helps to know tradition if you want to subvert it.” It stands to reason that people who are intimately familiar with the system and its thorny limitations can be a fount of innovation.

Am I against fresh blood and new perspectives? Of course not. But the map is not the territory; and if you’re not familiar with the territory, reality often bites. In the real world, you don’t get traction if you don’t understand the system which you aim to disrupt. In the real world, very few companies actually tolerate failure in the name of innovation, even if they promise to do so on their websites.

The wit and wisdom to innovate and change already exists

I have experienced time and again that the wit and wisdom to innovate and change already exists in most organizations. And it seems Mr. Dennett agrees,Creativity…often is a heretofore unimagined violation of the rules of the system from which it springs.” It does needs care and feeding, however. How do you activate it? Ask deep questions like the one in the beginning of this article.

What you’re doing is activating:

  1. Objectivity: identify the traditions, processes, and limitations, even if some are so entrenched, you barely recognize you are repeating them.

  2. Critical Thinking: separate the limitations or constraints that are there for a good reason, and which require some rule-breaking.

  3. Experimentation: decide which you want to go after and why? Can we model impact?

  4. Extra Credit: Apply the “Tempest in a tea cup” lens. Is this enough of a change or are we nibbling at the corners?

Some folks need more time to think before they speak

Questions like these are the best way to signal your intention that you require the best of your people. Don’t judge too soon, though. Some folks need more time to think before they speak. Don't punish them for it. In her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain says of introverts, “They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.” I cannot agree more.


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