I had a chance to interview Ed Harrington, CEO of Ideas to Go, and coauthor of Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward. Harrington and his coauthors, Adam Hansen and Beth Storz, offer creative strategies to outwit our own brains. Prehistoric wiring, they say, still renders us risk-averse, short-circuiting our ability to perform.
How does our brain’s prehistoric wiring continue to shape our perceptions of the world?
Just as our bodies are still wired to meet the needs of caloric scarcity, which was the reality millennia ago, our minds are still wired for survival. But while, in today’s world, caloric overabundance is messing most of us up physically, we’re also finding that we’re maladaptively set up to handle important cognitive challenges. Those mental shortcuts that evolution bequeathed us are short-circuiting our performance.
What are Cognitive Biases, and how do they make it difficult for us be innovative?
Cognitive Biases are shortcuts that have been programmed into our cognition to aid decision-making. That circuitry was necessary for handling the challenges that our ancestors faced — finding food, protecting themselves from wild animals or the elements, making decisions about others fitting into their clan. It may still be helpful, but to the extent that the conditions we face now are more complex, or just very different, these shortcuts no longer fit our needs.
What’s the best technique to use to overcome our Cognitive Biases?
Just being aware that we’re apt to fall prey to them is an important first step. They’re instinctive — we’ll go there unless we’re vigilant. But combine that awareness with humility, and sure, a sense of humor. We’re all in this together! Our study of the subject has left us with a greater appreciation of each other. Given all that’s going against us, it’s fantastic that we’re able to do the amazing things that we do! Score one for the human spirit!
After that, having even one or two simple techniques to address each bias when you see it show up is important. The great news is that the techniques we lay out in our book are very easy to learn and apply.
What do you mean by the “Curse of Knowledge,” and how does someone overcome this bias to welcome new ideas?
When you become expert in something, it’s really hard to go back to a place of pure simplicity to explain it to someone unfamiliar with the subject. You think you can remember what it’s like not knowing anything about the subject, but you can’t. One technique to remedy this is “Assumption Busting,” which simply asks you to list all the assumptions you’re making about a given topic — with no assumption too obvious to list. Then, play with each one, either doing away with it entirely, or at least relaxing it to see what that opens up in terms of possibility.
In areas such as new product development, why is it important to keep new ideas on the table for as long as possible?
We pride ourselves on our productivity! We want to launch! And, as they say, “To everything, there is a season”: a time to launch, and a time to learn. The irony is that many teams rush up front because launch concerns are concrete and seem so adult and business-y, while learning seems all innovation-geeky. But giving ourselves the opportunity to learn early on — to see what value we can create and capture — is really the way forward. Slow down early in order to capture the right blend of uniqueness and relevance, which research shows are the top two drivers of innovation success. Hastiness won’t get you there.
To learn more, visit Ideas To Go.