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Changing how we change

New ideas are at the very heart of innovation.  But many of us are poor at changing our ideas, according to Luke Williams, a NYU Stern School of Business professor and founder of NYU Innovation Labs

Having addressed the World Innovation Forum and the United Nations General Assembly and lectured in 21 countries, Luke Williams is a sought-after speaker with a passion for innovation. He holds over 30 US patents and has designed over 100 products in industries from transportation, finance, and healthcare to consumer electronics. He is also the bestselling author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business

You say we could improve at changing our ideas. What makes you say so?  

For most of human history, we didn’t have to keep up with new ideas. That’s because, for a long time, ideas lived longer than people. For example, if you lived in the 12th century, your basic life was no different from someone who lived in the 11th century. Progress was achingly slow. But then, in the 18th century, we experienced the sudden change of the industrial revolution.  

By 1900, it took around 30 years for a step big enough to make the world uncomfortably different. Now, with the internet and artificial intelligence (AI), it’s five to seven years. We’re in this unique position where people live longer than ideas, meaning they must change the core ideas behind every decision and action they take in their business or industry.  

Of course, we’ve been discussing this increasing change pace since the 1970s. However, I argue that we have limited tools for changing ideas. Yet the quality of our future life will be determined by the quality of our ideas. I believe the 21st-century leadership challenge is conceptual, not technological. 

Organizations have different opinions about what kind of leadership behaviors will work best for them. Most organizations have no idea their conceptual innovation skills will govern their future success.   

What do you mean by conceptual innovation? 

Conceptual innovation refers to our ability to continually reframe our understanding of the world and change our ideas. The effort to change ideas is worthwhile because ideas are the starting point of everything else in history. They shape the world we inhabit. 

I hesitate to use the word ‘conceptual’ because, in many people’s minds, it means talking or thinking things to death and not getting enough done. But I always remind my clients and students that getting stuff done usually means doing so within the conceptual boundaries of what you believe is achievable and acceptable.  

Assumptions of what will or won’t, what can or cannot, and what should or should not be changed are all woven into your—and your employees’—ideas. And those ideas are what determine the freedom of your thinking and your organization’s future. 

In my experience, most of these ideas are incremental. People generally think about what they are thinking about to support what they have already been thinking about. They claim that ideas are the easy part; the hard part is implementation. So, they spend time arguing over implementation details and convince themselves that they are making decisions when the truth is that they are neglecting important conceptual matters because those matters do not lend themselves to concrete actions.  

The problem is that if you are not looking in the right direction, no amount of “taking action” will help you. This is the biggest challenge for businesses today: we all like getting stuff done but are heading in the wrong direction most of the time. 

Why are conceptual innovation skills so crucial in business today? 

Without conceptual innovation, our ideas cannot develop fast enough to cope with a world filled with VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  

We are obsessed with data and technology, but they are no longer a bottleneck. The challenge is how to get value from data and technology. 

We must remember that a large pile of bricks does not build a house. The mind thinks with ideas, not with information. So, better ideas are the new bottleneck. And that depends less on the ideas themselves and more on the conceptual innovation skills of the people judging and developing them.  

If you believe leaders who evangelize the need to disrupt their existing business are soliciting and eager to accept better ideas, you are making a big mistake. Whether they are aware of it or not, most executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists are biased toward evolution rather than revolution.  

How can business leaders hone their conceptual innovation skills? 

First, it is essential to realize that conceptual innovation skills are not intuitive. It is counter-intuitive to search for alternative ways of thinking about the business when it is at the peak of its success. It is counter-intuitive to experiment slowly with long-term solutions when you need to address short-term problems.  

We educate leaders to be reasonable, rational decision-makers. Then we expect them to be irrational, unreasonable “disruptors” hot on the trail of breakthrough innovations.  

It comes down to the fact that a leader’s ability to challenge assumptions is more important than the ability to reinforce them. But suppose they have been trained to recognize common problems and respond only with common solutions. In that case, the counter-intuitive mindset I am talking about never develops. So, the first critical thing for business leaders to recognize is their role in helping people, including themselves, get past their thinking habits and biases. 

My second piece of advice relates to the first: do not trust your gut. Our faith in our intuition makes us prone to error— especially when we are trying to predict the future from the context of the past or the present.  

You know the saying, “You have to see it to believe it.” The opposite is true: “We see what we believe.” The more familiar our frame of reference, the more confident we are in using it. And so, the cycle repeats. New ideas will always be dismissed if we judge them through the context of old ideas—at least until signs of the need for change are so obvious that we cannot ignore them any longer. 

One of the greatest challenges for leaders is to support and invest in ideas they intuitively think will not succeed.

What other skills are important to spark transformation in business? 

I often use a cooking metaphor. Executives use the same old recipes over and over again to repeat their success and avoid mistakes, uncertainty, and the wastefulness of trial and error. New ingredients (potentially disruptive new technologies and insights into consumer behavior) often go unused because they do not fit existing products, services, and business models.  

It is not easy to break free of the “we’ve always done it this way” approach. But if you truly want to find new recipes, that’s what you will have to do because the problems with innovation often have less to do with the ingredients themselves than the way we put them together.  

Simply rethinking or rearranging your ingredients often leads to profound new recipes and shifts in perspective.  

Of course, many new recipes will fail. Even after rearranging your ingredients and taking the time and effort to consider each new iteration, you might find that they just aren’t as useful as the traditional recipe you’d like to replace. But focusing too much on this small downside could make you miss a big upside. Constantly expecting success will invariably make your company risk-averse and quickly eliminate many interesting options.   

Regardless of the outcome, you need your people ready, willing, and eager to rearrange ingredients to find better recipes continually. If you can capture and share what you learn throughout your organization, you’ll be helping your company increase the odds that the next idea you pursue will hit the target. 

What advice do you offer business leaders looking to deliver real change?  

Conceptual innovation skills are your ultimate resource. Understand that an idea is itself an item of investment. Every idea gives an organization another way of thinking about its business, another choice. Think of ideas as currency—a source of innovation capital. The more ideas you have in your portfolio, the more capital you have available to “purchase” other ideas.  

So instead of grasping at Option A as the single, right direction, innovation capital positions your business to do Option A, B, C, or D—or any combination of those choices—depending on the circumstances. The greater the uncertainty around those circumstances, the more options you’ll need in the future.  

Your chance of creating new wealth is directly proportional to the innovation capital you have available. Conceptual innovation is about putting your business in situations in which you have more new ideas to spend than your competition does.  

As you build innovation capital, releasing the energy that’s been locked up doing things the way you always have and applying it to new ways of thinking, you’ll eventually start seeing results. Experimenting with more options will ultimately force your business to think more clearly about trade-offs and better understand your priorities.  

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Luke Williams

A NYU Stern School of Business professor and founder of W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs

Luke Williams is a renowned business thinker, speaker, and author, recognized for lecturing in 21 countries, including prestigious events like the World Innovation Forum and the United Nations General Assembly. He is a Professor of Innovation at NYU Stern School of Business and the founder of Idea Skills™.

Williams is a prolific innovator with 30+ U.S. patents to his name and a portfolio of over 100 product designs spanning various industries.

His insights are regularly featured in prominent publications such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. He is also the bestselling author of "Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Business Transformation in Your Business."

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