Don’t Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine

Here is an excerpt from an article written by William C. Taylor for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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One of the most perplexing features of these troubled times is that so many capable people in so many fields look so lost and ineffective. Whether it’s the stubborn inefficiencies of the health-care system, the ever-rising costs of the higher-education system, even the slow-motion collapse of the US postal system, leaders with unrivaled expertise and decades of experience can’t seem to develop creative solutions to dire problems.

Why are so many smart executives so ineffective?

One answer may be that all this experience is itself a problem. In her underappreciated book, The Innovation Killer, Cynthia Barton Rabe, a former innovation strategist at Intel, explains how “what we know limits what we can imagine.” Many organizations, she argues, struggle with a “paradox of expertise” in which deep knowledge of what exists in a marketplace or a product category makes it harder to consider what-if strategies that challenge long-held assumptions. “When it comes to innovation,” she writes, “the same hard-won experience, best practice, and processes that are the cornerstones of an organization’s success may be more like millstones that threaten to sink it.”

Her answer to the paradox is to populate organizations with “zero-gravity thinkers”: innovators “who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or ‘the way things have always been done.'” In Rabe’s formula, zero-gravity thinkers come from outside the corporate mainstream and work deep within the ranks of the organization. They are designers, ethnographers, anthropologists, and other creative types who get immersed in a project or a team, contribute their unique points of view, and then move on to the next change-the-game assignment. Ideal zero-gravity thinkers, she explains, have “psychological distance” from the setting in which they work, “renaissance tendencies” that draw on a range of interests and influences, and “related expertise” that allows them to find the points where blue-sky ideas intersect with real-world opportunities.

Or, to put it differently, the most effective leaders demonstrate a capacity for vuja dé. We’ve all experienced déjà vu — looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that — looking at a familiar situation (a field you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. If you believe, as I do, that what you see shapes how you change, then the question for change-minded leaders becomes: How do you look at your organization and your field as if you are seeing them for the first time?

A classic example of this phenomenon, which I chronicled in my book Mavericks at Work, was the game-changing performance of Commerce Bank, one of the most colorful institutions in the history of retail banking. I first noticed Commerce back in the late ’90s, when it was developing a reputation for creativity and had a stock-market value of $400 million. Ten years later, after a period of massive growth, the company sold itself to TD Bank in a stock transaction worth $8.5 billion — not a bad decade. Today, operating under the TD Bank umbrella, the outfit has more than 1,000 branches up and down the East Coast, from Maine to Florida, and a well-earned reputation as “America’s most convenient bank.”

During its rise to prominence, the bank introduced one unheard-of innovation after another: seven-day-a-week service, free coin-counting machines that were hugely popular with customers, “Red Fridays” in which employees wore special outfits to work. The term it used to describe its strategy was “retailtainment” — making it fun for customers to do business in an industry that was devoid of personality. “The world didn’t need another bank on the corner, and then we came along,” said Dennis DiFlorio, who spent nearly twenty years in leadership positions, including chairman. “We created a cult brand in a dead business.”

Whenever I spent time with the bank’s leadership team, they were adamant about their disdain for traditional approaches to “benchmarking” the competition as well as for traditional banks. They didn’t evaluate themselves against Citigroup, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo. They looked to “power retailers” such as Starbucks, Target, and Best Buy. (Commerce did study its rivals, but only to discover “the stuff that drives customers at other banks crazy.” These were called Competitor Rules and Practices — internal acronym, CRAP.)

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William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and author of Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself, published January 4, 2011. You can follow him on Twitter.




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