Improve this One Behavior to Encourage Innovation

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

“We are rarely smart enough to set about on purpose making the discoveries that will drive our economy and safeguard our lives. Often, we lack the fundamental research. Instead, we pursue a broad range of investigations of Nature, and applications we never dreamed of emerge. Not always, of course. But often enough.”

Yet too often we close ourselves off to these discoveries. We avoid investing in the unknown and the risk of unexpected results, preferring to follow familiar and proven paths.

The Downside of Punishing Risk

In 1975, Senator William Proxmire, a fiscally conscious Democrat from Wisconsin, awarded the first Golden Fleece Award to the National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 on a study on love. Proxmire would continue to award his golden fleeces to those projects he considered to be the “most outrageous examples of federal waste.”

Uncertainty or Certainty? Unknown or Known?

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.” — Albert O. Hirschman

In the summer of 1928 a Scottish biologist, known among his friends for being disorderly, was researching bacteria cultures when he failed to clean up his lab before leaving for vacation. When he came back, he found that a number of the petri dishes had grown moldy. Before throwing them out, he discovered the mold in one dish had destroyed the bacteria culture growing there.

“Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.”

And our ability to make similar contributions — in our companies and our lives — relies on whether we choose to encourage these behaviors or stifle them.

How Does Your Company Manage Uncertainty?

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” — John Cleese

When an experiment doesn’t work out at your company, how do people react?

“In fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.”

The trailblazing physicist David Bohm described similar concerns in his 1968 essay On Creativity. In it he described the main barrier to committing to the new,

“One thing that prevents us from thus giving primary emphasis to the perception of what is new and different is that we are afraid to make mistakes… If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything new at all. And this is more or less the state in which most people are. Such a fear of making a mistake is added to one’s habits of mechanical perception in terms of preconceived ideas and learning only for specific utilitarian purposes. All of these combine to make a person who cannot perceive what is new and who is therefore mediocre rather than original.”

Choose Your Response.

“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock as she rose to defend the great E.E. Cummings after detractors attacked her Academy of American Poets for awarding him their annual fellowship.

“Recent years have shown a growing preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding the creative act and a search for the ingredients that promote creativity. This preoccupation in itself suggests that we are in a special kind of trouble — and indeed we are.”

We are indeed. But it’s not something that we don’t know how to turn around. The next time an experiment doesn’t work out, decide whether giving out your own version of the Golden Fleece Awards is worth it. And recognize what it’s costing you in the long-run.



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Jake Wilder

Jake Wilder


I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.