Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Too Much Knowledge Kills Innovation

You've probably heard the phrase, "What you don't know can kill you." Have you considered that knowing too much may not be such a good thing?

I recently learned of a book by Cynthia Barton Rabe called The Innovation Killer. The premise of the book is that when we know too much, or have a high level of knowledge in a particular subject area, our nature is to restrain our creative thinking. Experts often trade in thoughts of "what if" for thoughts of "what is". When many experts get together, "group-think" takes over and innovation dies. However, there in lies the paradox. Too much expertise, you can't innovate. Too little and you can't innovate at all.

Rabe goes on to say that there is a negative impact to formalized education. It indoctrinates people into expert thinking and discourages innovative thinking. I've long held the belief that our education system is so institutionalized that it rarely looks out a window to see what is going on in the real world. They teach you how to think and operate within the vacuum of an educational institution, not how to think and operate in the workforce. That you have to develop on your own and often, on the run. My colleague, Kevin Donaldson at Kinetic Shift, did a posting to his blog back in November that is similar to my viewpoint on education. Just think what could happen if we adopted the model Kevin illustrates? Innovation would be through the roof!

This posting is not so much about what I learned in my recent research, but more an appeal to the fields of science and technology - let the novices and creative thinkers into the group. I believe that in the years to come (if it hasn't happened already) our country's chief product or export will be innovation, especially as it relates to science and technology. While we novices may not know much about agile development, programming languages, electrical engineering or information technology, we can help bring balance to the group-think expertise paradox that weighs down so many organizations. When everyone gravitates toward the "what is", we (and I'm speaking here as a consultant to the IT field) can ask the "what if's" to help open new doors to innovation. By doing this we help the experts tap into the thinking they've long abandoned before they became known as experts.

Seth Godin, in his book Small Is the New Big helps support this by explaining that a little idea can change everything. This is very similar to Malcom Gladwell's Tipping Point theory. The little ideas were what Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov wrote about such as communications satellites and robotics. Today, some of the things they wrote about have become reality. Unfortunately, those dreams of yesterday and today have been put into the care of the MBA's of the world.

So let's give the novice, the creative thinker or even the expert from a different field a chance to introduce that new, yet small idea into the group-think that weighs us down. Who knows? Perhaps new and bigger innovations will emerge.

UPDATE: I have written a companion post on my other blog for Treasure Valley Consultants' Network.

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