Twenty years ago, long before we had children, my wife and I decided to spend Valentine’s Day weekend in Tuscany. We were living just a two-hour flight away in London at the time, so leaving on a Friday and returning on a Monday would still mean two days and three nights of rolling hills, wineries, and amazing cuisine.
We booked our flights and rented a car, but our search for a hotel revealed nothing really inspiring within our budget. We narrowed our choices down to a property a little larger than a bed-and-breakfast on the outskirts of Lucca. But we still felt it was a “plan B,” our fallback plan.
We had dreamed of a hotel that would be truly memorable, not necessarily luxurious, but that would give us an authentic and memorable experience of the Italian countryside. So we set out, without confirmed accommodations, in the hopes of stumbling upon our “plan A.”
When you can prove it before you do it
What I would only learn decades later is that such choices are fundamental to innovation. The propensity of you, your colleagues, or your organization to jump on a plane without a firm plan, research shows, may very well determine whether your organization will shape the future or become its victim.
You see, by definition, when you are attempting something new, you cannot predict, based on historical data, how it will work out. You cannot project on a financial model how a customer will react to a product if no customer has seen that product before. You must first put that product in front of them. If your idea is truly innovative, there will be no precedent for you to turn to. There will be no data to research. You must create the data yourself.
The founders of Zappos didn’t know how people would react to buying shoes online. So they snapped photos of shoes at a retailer and posted them on a simple website. If people bought the shoes, Zappos employees would buy them from the store to ship them.
When HP invented the first digital calculator, a market research firm they had hired tried to predict what the market potential would be. This firm concluded the market for such an invention was miniscule because an entrenched competitor was already in the market at a radically lower price point … the slide rule. But HP leadership understood the innovation principle I am advocating here. So, they produced 1,000 digital calculators to see how consumers would react, and in a very short time, they were selling well over 1,000 calculators a day.
Flipping your mindset
To drive greater innovation, most companies focus on the visible actions they feel they can control: R&D spend, patents filed, or number of innovation hubs. They buy foosball tables and set up lounges. But such activities are more “innovation theater” that produces few tangible results.
The deeper root cause that hinders most corporations from effectively innovating is more inherently ingrained: a mindset. Specifically, the idea that you need to have a well-tested plan before committing.
Had Zappos tried to prove people would buy shoes online before starting to sell them online, they may never have launched. Had HP demanded proof the electronic calculator could displace the slide rule before they were willing to try, might we still today be using slide rules?
To predict if your company will be the disruptor or disrupted, the innovator or the one left behind, ask yourself, “Do we ask people to prove their idea before they get permission to act on it … or are will we willing to let them take action in order to prove their idea?”
In a fascinating study by Richard Wiseman, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, researchers studied two groups of people: those who considered themselves “lucky” and those who considered themselves “unlucky.” They gave both groups the identical task: to look through a newspaper and report how many photographs were inside. It took the unlucky people an average of 2 minutes to come up with the final count, yet lucky people took only a few seconds.
Why was this? Because on the second page of paper, in large lettering, was written, “Stop counting – there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”
Unlucky people approached the task with a plan firmly in mind. They executed the plan with intention. They were going to flip through every page and count each photo. They adopted tunnel vision, hunting for photos, ignoring any text, considering any information that was not a photo a distraction.
Lucky people, by contrast, were open to luck happening. They thought, “I will count photos, but maybe I will see something else that could give me the answer more quickly.”
Because lucky people expect luck, they are more likely to see it when it appears. People who consider themselves unlucky are likely to dismiss an unexpected opportunity if it appears because either they don’t trust it, or, even more common, they fail to notice it at all.
Discovering plan A
Back in Tuscany, my wife and I drove along windy roads wrapped around undulating mountains, headed toward our plan B hotel. I entered the hotel to pay for a room while my wife waited in the car. My disheartenment at having to stay in a less-than-ideal hotel turned to dismay when the bartender/check-in desk operator informed me they were now oversold. I returned to the car and informed my wife, and we turned back upon the road.
As we curved around a winding mountain under a darkening sky, our anxiety grew. Where would we sleep tonight … on the side of the road? But the last gasp of sunlight illuminated a rectangular sign reading “ecotourism” with an arrow to the left.
We turned off the road on to a gravel driveway that led to what seemed a centuries-old farm. Vineyards wrapped around a few stables, which had been converted into idyllic stand-alone apartments. They had vacancies, so we booked our room and went to bed.
The next day, we opened the wood shutters, unveiling a canvas of grape trees rising to the light of the morning sun. It was the image of Tuscany we envisioned but that no plan could guarantee we’d find … our plan A.
Expect the unexpected
You see, innovation is, by definition, unexpected. To try to predict it is futile. To plan for plan A while ready to pivot to plan B is to settle. The true path of innovation is to take action on plan B while staying on the lookout for plan A.
Ask yourself these two essential questions if you want to change the future:
- Are you willing to act on plan B while still looking for plan A?
- Have you established an organizational mindset that encourages your people do the same?