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Are we actually wise to dislike radicals?

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Are we actually wise to dislike radicals?

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I’ve written a number of times about the apparent unpopularity of innovators or radicals who seek to do things differently.  One of the first records of this phenomenon was in The Prince by Nicolas Machiavelli, and it’s since been confirmed in a number of studies into how we perceive innovators.

It might seem counter-intuitive given that we’re in an age enthralled by innovation and new ideas, but might those stick in the muds actually be right to look cynically upon those flush with idea after idea?

I mean, when you think about it, ideas are actually worthless.  You actually have to do something with the idea for it to have value.  When you consider the failure rate of ideas that seemed great at the time, it’s perhaps right that we should be wary.

A recent study from the University of Bath highlights as much.  It suggests that sticking with the status quo can actually be the optimum choice for both individual and group.

The authors suggest this is because any change often takes some time, causing disruption to both the group and individuals, and the costs involved may outweigh the benefits.

When the researchers modeled groups of people attempting to change bad behaviors they found that both individuals and groups performed best when they ignored attempts to change.

The authors suggest that this may be down to our evolutionary desire to co-operate with our peers rather than cause disruption.

It seemed a good idea at the time

Indeed, there has been a plethora of research highlighting just how bad we are at picking ‘winners’ in things, and there’s little evidence to suggest we’re any better when it comes to innovation.  What makes us think that the great idea someone is proposing will actually work?

As we’re still (just about) in the new years resolution part of the year, it’s a bit like dieting.  There are hundreds of different diets out there claiming to help us slim down and lose weight.  The reality though is that losing weight should be simple – eat less, exercise more.  If you implement that very simple strategy then you’ll usually lose weight, yet that doesn’t stop thousands having ideas around losing weight on whatever diet plan they choose, whilst the implementation often lags some way behind.

It’s much the same with innovation.  The best idea in the world is useless until its actually implemented.  The value comes not in the idea, but the end product that earns (or saves) you money.

I’m sure if you reflect on your own workplace that you can see and hear hundreds, maybe even thousands of ideas about how things can be improved in some way.  Most of us will have them, yet only a tiny fraction of these ideas will ever be implemented.

It begs the question, what is the value inherent in encouraging even more ideas when there are already so many floating about?  Is the challenge not more how we can turn the ideas that already exist into action?

The likes of Amazon and Google probably show the way, as their business is founded on the simple concept of conducting a continuous stream of experiments.  They’re generally not big, grand and expensive ones either, but by experimenting continuously they get to try out a whole load of ideas.

When you can build such an experimental culture, you don’t tend to need someone elses permission to actually try your idea out.  You’re not relying on other people necessarily for the implementation of your idea.  You can no longer fall back on the notion that ‘they’ aren’t listening to your great ideas.

Instead, you have a culture whereby if you have an idea, you are responsible for testing it out.  This is especially valuable when you have ideas for other parts of the organization than your own as it forces you to consider many of the constraints and issues that you may previously have been oblivious to.

Now imagine the learning that will occur when you’re actually experimenting with your idea, watching it succeed (or not), exploring the hurdles that need to be overcome in the real world rather than the ideological one in which many ideas ferment.

How you can build such a culture will be the focus of an upcoming blog.

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