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Blinded by our own expertise?

In June, I had the pleasure to attend the EIASM International Product Development Management Conference in the UK. During the keynote, it occurred to me that we as innovation experts have a very particular view on innovation and I wondered if we are right. Are we perhaps blinded by our own expertise?

The keynote by Fiona Lambert

The keynote by Fiona Lambert got me thinking. Fiona Lambert is the Managing Director of Business development at River Island. A successful businesswoman by all means. She took us through her life journey and explained what brought her to River Island. She told us about the innovation initiatives she was spearheading at the company. The lack of interest of the audience in her story was thus surprising to me.

To give a bit of background, Drapers wrote about Lambert joining River Island. “She is brought in to identify and develop new business opportunities across stores, online, international, franchise, wholesale and licenses…She has a lot of ideas about what can be done … Lambert will work to make River Island’s offer “more relevant”. This could include expanding into new categories, such as athleisurewear, or broadening the core customer base into different age groups.” 

At the courtesy of Drapers, drapersonline.com

In sum, she was brought in to rejuvenate River Island. In the keynote, Lambert explained what she had done and how she had enabled the company to respond faster to consumer demand, with ever faster cycle times of new fashion lines. It now takes just weeks to design, make, ship, and market a new line.

However, my innovation colleagues at the conference were not impressed. “Zara and H&M have been doing this for years!”, “This is nothing new”, “What has this to do with innovation” were a few of the opinions I heard afterward.

It bothered me, but I could not exactly nail what made these remarks troublesome to me.

Blinded by our own expertise

Just a week later, I read in the Harvard Business Review, an article about how expertise can make you blind.

Expertise sounds like an unqualified good in professional contexts. Companies associate it with high performance and leadership capability and seek it when hiring for key roles. But in studying top executives over the past decade, I [Sydney Finkelstein, the author of the article] have come to understand that expertise can also severely impede performance, in two important ways.”

For the first, Finkelstein gives an example of how the rescue-and-relief efforts were handled after Hurricane Katrina hit.  Matthew Broderick, a brigadier general with 30 years’ experience running emergency operations, including a stint at the helm of the U.S. Marine Corps National Command Center, seemed like the perfect person to oversee the response to the storm. “Been there, done that,” he said when describing his qualifications for the role. However, Broderick made some serious judgment errors in handling the rescue and relief operations. He seems to have believed that his brilliance in one area would render him competent in another.

This type of overconfidence is one form of what Finkelstein calls the expertise trap.

The other is when leaders’ deep knowledge and experience leaves them incurious, blinkered, and vulnerable—even in their own fields. As Finkelstein explains “When we begin to identify as experts, our outlook can narrow, both in daily work and in times of crisis. We become reluctant to admit mistakes and failings, thus hindering our development.

Stuck in traditional conventions?

Finkelstein’s article made me wonder, are we as innovation experts perhaps also stuck in our ways of thinking?

Below is a list of what the experts in the field of innovation seem to take as truths. Assumptions, that in my humble opinion, are ripe for reconsideration. At least, these statements don’t hold true for the majority of organizations I have been working with, which are mostly companies in the services industries.

Current assumptions of the innovation process:

  • Companies should always be innovating, this is not a task to only undertake when the need arises or an opportunity comes along.
  • Investing in innovation capabilities pays for itself. In the middle and long run, these investments create substantial returns, that outweigh the efforts and risks.
  • More spending on R&D and innovation and more innovation capabilities will lead to more innovative outcomes that benefit the firm and its clients.
  • Innovation is about creating new products, or apps, or business models. Creating a new service is basically the same
  • Leave innovation to the experts – not everyone can innovate. It is a specialism with its own tools and jargon (design thinking, Lean startup, agile, etc.). The experts can innovate more efficiently and effectively.
  • You need employees who are 100% committed to the innovation project, otherwise, it will take forever to get a project done.
  • Research should happen in the R&D unit, new business development and business model innovation in innovation units – because the business units are too focused on operations and today’s goals to innovate
  • Innovation is a matter of vision, it takes a visionary leader to see what pearls to invest in.
  • The most challenging part of the innovation process is getting good ideas in the pipeline and acting upon these ideas in a timely manner. Validation, implementation, and scaling are part of the process, but rarely the bottleneck.

These assumptions make innovation experts consider the efforts of Fiona Lamberts as uninteresting. As what she does, is not providing us new insights in how to innovate.

What I started to realize, the reverse is perhaps more likely to be true. Are we as innovation experts perhaps looking at the wrong things? Could it be, that we are blinded by our own expertise and therefore only interested in truly novel – new to the world – innovations, while in reality, those only represent a tip of the iceberg? Are the issues we are interested in perhaps not very representative for the innovation challenges the majority of the companies are dealing with?

Challenging the current assumptions

I would love to get your take on these assumptions.

Are we indeed making many assumptions about the innovation process that are only valid for a few companies in the world, those that develop new to the world and other groundbreaking innovations? And are we, by only focussing on those types of innovations, leaving the majority of companies and innovation efforts out of the loop?

What I would also like to know, am I challenging the right assumptions? Am I perhaps forgetting other important assumptions that also need to be re-evaluated for this day and age?

Let me know in the comment section below!

2 thoughts on “Blinded by our own expertise?

  1. I agree with your challenge of the established assumptions! Recently spent a few years consulting to a fintech start up that was initially targeting Chief Innovation Officers at banks because they were publicly starting fintech pilot projects and championing new efforts. But we soon learned that these Innovation Officers were often window dressing by banks who really didn’t want to change but needed to be seen as “innovating”. If we couldn’t get a line of business owner on board within the first month of a project we were dead in the water because almost all pilot projects went no where. In contrast if we could make a change that mattered to a business owner, they would fight for our funding and purchase our offer.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Great story and so true!
      Service companies often seem to be paying lip service to innovation and only willing to invest if results can be expected the same quarter or at least in the same fiscal year. It takes a bit more patience, to experience how investing in innovation projects contributes to the bottom line.

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