The Future is in How Fast You Are at Unlearning

I recently came across a blog from Penelope Trunk my wife shared with me about home schooling. Common themes are found in various projects I have led where companies and individuals are stuck in their traditional way of thinking and see their business become stagnant, irrelevant and eventually die.

Through our education, from kindergarten to grad school, then through our professional lives, we have been shaped in the same mold, even though we hear here and there that we need to “think outside the box”, that box being only aimed to fit into a bigger box, like the Russian dolls. Conventionalism, risk aversion and complacency kill innovation and entrepreneurship.

We must unlearn what we have learned in order to be innovative. You don’t want to be an innovation killer, do you?

Here is a (non exhaustive) list of behaviors and thinking patterns we need to unlearn.

Unlearn how to face failure. Our society’s perception of failure is negative. We try our best to avoid failure, or hide it. There is no shame in failing. Failure is merely part of the learning process. It is a stepping stone for future success. We should embrace failure and celebrate it as much as we celebrate success.

Don’t focus on the $ bottom line. If all matters to your organization is $, your future is in jeopardy. Revenue growth, increased profit margin are only a consequence of your innovation and efficiency efforts. Innovation rarely pays off right away; it takes time, money and efforts. Innovation is an investment into the future, not a short-term $ goal. You should put aside part (the rule is 10%) of your operating budget to lead innovation efforts, with no metrics on immediate ROI (otherwise it defeats the purpose).

When you look at a problem, don’t look at it as a whole. Take it apart in pieces and start building a solution with the pieces in a different way. As an example, the Indianapolis Zoo knew they were facing a major issue with the new orangutan exhibit: an increase of 30% in attendance. Looking at the attendance and parking problem as a whole, they saw an immediate solution: expand the parking lot. This meant raising more funds to build a new parking lot, with the challenge of having an empty lot when the attendance is low.

By taking the problem apart, they realized that they had to better manage the flow of visitors across the week, versus trying to fix a massive visitor influx on the weekend. They introduced a dynamic pricing, spreading attendance more evenly between busy and low periods, thus controlling the parking issue and providing a better experience to the visitors every single day.

Stop thinking that your products differentiate you from the competition. Think of Apple. In its early years, Apple represented the anti-system, anti-PC world. If you were mainstream, you were a PC user. If you were different (Apple’s “think different”) or artsy, you were a Mac user. After Steve Jobs came back to Apple and made what Apple is today, suddenly the brand became mainstream, to the point of alienating early Mac adopters. Apple products went from being in a niche to being adopted by the masses.

Although they changed the industry (and literally our lives) introducing i-Pod, i-Phone, i-Pad, the Apple products have become mainstream and fully commoditized. Samsung introduced their smart watch before Apple, although the i-watch had been the talk for years. Google introduced the smart glasses first…

Apple went from being the industry’s #1 brand and disruptor to being second-to-market trying to catch up with the competition. As products and services are easily commoditized, the unique differentiator comes with the brand experience a company creates for its customers or users. It is much harder to plagiarize a unique brand experience than it is to plagiarize a product or a service.

Stop thinking that you need a perfect product before you launch it. Iterate to innovate. Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection. The best part of working on the web? Google get do-overs. Lots of them. The first version of AdWords, released in 1999, wasn’t very successful – almost no one clicked on the ads. Not many people remember that because Google kept iterating and eventually reached the model we have today. And they’re still improving it; every year Google runs tens of thousands of search and ads quality experiments, and over the past year they’ve launched over a dozen new formats. Some products they update every day.

Google’s iterative process often teaches the company invaluable lessons. Watching users ‘in the wild’ as they use Google’s products is the best way to find out what works, then the company can act on that feedback. It’s much better to learn these things early and be able to respond than to go too far down the wrong path.

Stop thinking that you can’t share knowledge or ideas because you fear they’ll be stolen. Open collaboration is key to future innovation, growth and relevance. For instance, during the 2013 Day of Innovation in Indianapolis, executives from Eli Lilly and Company and Delta Faucet met and decided to collaborate on their respective innovation days inside their companies. The more you collaborate, even with your competitors, the more opportunities you create.

Stop thinking you need to stay focused on your industry and stay in your natural environment to be an expert. By looking into other industries, colliding your ideas to others, opening to new perspectives, you will open up your organization to new ways of thinking and new opportunities. Often times your competitors are not the ones closer to you, but those coming from outside your industry.

The future is in how fast you are at unlearning.

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Stephan Vincent is the Indiana Editor for Innovation Excellence, covering innovation in the Hoosier state and beyond.  He is the Innovation & Brand Catalyst at Think Unique, an innovation & branding consulting agency in Indianapolis, IN. He is also Founder and President of s.p.IN and Collide Summit Indiana, a first-of-its- kind un-conference unlike anything else. Connect with Stephan and gain more of his insights on his own  blog.

Stephan Vincent

Stephan Vincent is the founder of eX Summit, a space to debate the importance and impact of the employee experience (eX). He is also Marketing Director at Fusion Alliance.




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