Innovation and Optimism

Innovation and OptimismI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of optimism and how it pertains to innovation and to issues like the Gulf Oil spill. This promises to be a long and rambling post, so suffice it to say that most innovators are optimists, and wouldn’t be innovators otherwise. Yet we have to balance the challenges that optimism introduces into the reality the world imposes.

Look, for example, at the BP rig explosion. There. within a day or so of the explosion, we had a terrible outcome – oil spilling into the Gulf. However, BP and with some reluctance the Obama administration posited that the oil output into the Gulf was a mere 5000 barrels a day. As we now know, and most scientists hinted at for days after the explosion, that was an OPTIMISTIC estimate, based more on hope than facts. This optimistic viewpoint may have caused the machinery of the public and the government to move more slowly to demand action. What would have happened if a pessimist had set the oil flow, and said there’s 20,000 barrels flowing into the Gulf from the day it happened? Would our response have been faster?

In positive outcome circumstances (meaning outcomes where the positive outcome is most likely), it’s probably best to be an optimist, since you are more likely to reinforce success. In a negative outcome circumstance, it’s probably better to be a pessimist, since you’ll invest more readily in resources to recover or fix a problem.

Where innovation is concerned, we typically have two conflicting goals. True innovators are optimistic people who believe in their ideas, their processes and their solutions. So they tend to be viewed by the rest of the organization as rather “pollyannish” to say the least. Since they have that reputation going in, many other participants will view their role as the “pessimist” to level the playing field and ensure a balanced set of perspectives or views. Note as well that most people with pessimistic outlooks will easily identify problems or challenges for ideas, or reasons they can’t succeed, so having more than a few pessimists on any innovation effort makes the innovation effort far more challenging. Too many pessimists and the innovation effort never has a chance at all, since all of the pessimists act as “boat anchors” and drag down the effort.

What’s interesting is that most pessimists represent the “conservative” base of knowledge from an innovation perspective. They are defending what the firm has done, what they believe it can do. They operate from a position of strength – budgets, timeframes and resources are on their side. What they often fail to grasp is that even though they have the established “truth” on their side, innovators almost always succeed at upsetting the established norms. Once the norms are changed or overturned, entirely new horizons and perspectives are required. The old rules and knowledge may not work anymore. So innovation is a constant battle between established knowledge, norms and rules, and those that believe they have a vision for an entirely new set of rules and norms. That means, by definition, innovators have to have an optimistic outlook or they will fail to innovate.

Yet this also means that we need a seasoning of pessimists to ensure there’s no “tunnel vision” or evaluation of only the best possible outcomes. Fortunately for us there were many scientists – perhaps one of the first examples of crowdsourcing on a large public scale – who refuted BP’s and the government’s claim that 5000 barrels a day were leaking into the Gulf. These rationalists questions the most optimistic assumptions and helped us arrive at a better, more reasonable estimate, which accelerated the response. BP and the government had strong reasons to hope that the leak really was only 5000 barrels per day. That would make the clean up easier, less costly and have far less impact on the Gulf. Scientists and environmentalists had a much more pessimistic view from their experience in the Valdez disaster and felt the need to publish a more pessimistic estimate to speed the clean up and the capping of the well.

The point here from an innovation perspective is that most organizations have far more “pessimistic” people – those willing to defend the status quo, than “optimistic” people – those who believe in new products and change. Innovation teams need to be staffed primarily with people who have an optimistic frame of mind. Given the challenges that face any new idea, the last thing an idea needs to confront is doubt within the team. However, the optimists must be balanced by people who evaluate the idea using consistent framework and real world insight, to ensure the idea has mass appeal.

Takeaway: Staff your innovation team with optimistic people. Evaluate the ideas with pessimistic people. Most organizations do the reverse – generating ideas with a team of strong pessimists, which creates lots of incremental ideas, and using optimistic people to evaluate the ideas, which creates expectations of results far better than can be achieved. What you end up with is incremental ideas with little impact, but much bigger expectations. The worst of all worlds.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

Jeffrey Phillips




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No Comments

  1. Aaron Eden on June 28, 2010 at 12:32 am

    You raise some extremely important points. Like with all things there must be a ying/yang balance for the most powerful innovation to occur. Keep up the good work!

    Aaron Eden
    Innovators Mix

  2. Aaron Eden on June 28, 2010 at 12:34 am

    You raise some very important points! Like with all things, you need a good ying/yang balance to have the most powerful innovations come to fruition.

    I enjoyed reading this, please keep up the good work!

  3. Aneesh Karve on June 28, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    The missing discipline seems to be realism, seeing the world as it is, without preconceptions. Innovation theorists have also called this “vuja-de” (seeing the old with new eyes), or “seeing the water” (seeing the invisible default thinking that permeates a problem space).

    Realism is a discipline that pessimists, optimists and corporations at large can agree upon. After all, optimism can blind teams to the realities of the market just as well as pessimism can.

    So perhaps the essence of the distinction that Jeffery is drawing is not between optimists and pessimists, but between those who favor change (heterodoxes) and those who do not (orthodoxes).

    See also Ditkoff’s article on how to challenge assumptions.

  4. Todd on June 29, 2010 at 12:27 am

    You so optimistically assumed that BP was merely being optimistic in its initial estimates of the spill. Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I’m pretty sure they were outright lying.

  5. Paul McArdle on July 2, 2010 at 3:49 am


    You write that:

    “True innovators are optimistic people who believe in their ideas, their processes and their solutions”

    But I’ve inferred from your note that you think that the dose of reality is introduced by someone else.

    My view is that this is only half of the puzzle.

    If innovators were only optimistic, then the companies they run would never get past the idealistic stage.

    In my view, Jim Collins sums it up very well when he espouses that such people need to do both:

    “Confront the brutal facts BUT never lose faith”

    Hence they (personally) possess a mix of optimism and realism (moreso than pessimism).

    That’s certainly the type of people I’m looking to try to find and attract to my business.

    Maybe, as we grow, we’ll have scope for it being defined roles – but it can’t be the case for us now, with the people we hire in the next year or two.



  6. Francis on July 8, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    I’m just troubled with the notion that optimists are out of touch with reality.

    Someone described a pessimist, an optimist, and a realist using a sailing metaphor:

    The pessimist complains about the wind

    The optimist expects it to change

    The realist adjusts the sails

    There’s a great degree of optimism in the realist – because he adjusted his sails, he expects a smooth sailing, so off he goes

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