We all like to think we are pro-innovation. But how often we do we do this—ignore what we do not understand. It certainly makes things easier in the moment. But is that really a good approach to life?
There are certainly many things I do not understand and have no desire to understand: How my car engine works, how to perform heart surgery, etc. But then I’m not responsible for building an engine or repairing a heart. I do not need to understand these things. But what about all the things I am making decisions about that I may not fully understand?
The Anti-Innovation Mindset
There have been many occasions at work when I have watched someone present a new idea, a new approach, or a completely new way of doing things. When the new approach is complicated, the person is immediately shut down. No one wants to take the time to fully understand what’s being presented, what the results might be, or how it might benefit the company. Even when the results and benefits are made clear, if the concept is not simple and easy to comprehend, it isn’t supported. When we resist change, we are resisting innovation.
I experienced this myself when suggesting changes to the process for responding to customer requests and the way we structure our project teams. It didn’t matter what my idea was, as soon as people realized I wanted to change something, they moved on to the next agenda item. It was easier to maintain the status quo than to explore something new, unknown, or outside of our control.
“The ultimate ignorance is the rejection of something you know nothing about yet refuse to investigate.” —Dr. Wayne Dyer
I understand that time is limited and everyone is in a hurry to get to the next item on their schedule. Yet I have to wonder if this perceived lack of time to gain understanding is hurting us. Are we being closed-minded by brushing off what we do not understand? Are we just doing that with ideas, or are we doing that to people and practices as well?
How many of us preach open-mindedness but don’t actively put it into practice in our daily lives? We know that open-mindedness is crucial for success. Leaders need to have a constant flow of new ideas and innovations if they want to maintain strong leadership. They also need people around them who are willing to learn new things and consider alternative approaches to problems. Leaders need people who are coachable and can adapt to working with different types of people and in different business models and cultures. Being flexible in thought is considered to be an asset in the work environment during the hiring process, but we tend to brush aside this skill in our everyday practice.
So why are we so quick to close ourselves off from new ideas? Why do we tend to prioritize speed over understanding and creativity? Why do we ask for innovation yet set up so many barriers that prevent it?
Shifting to a Pro-Innovation Mindset
To be open-minded we must be willing to value the ideas of others. We must be willing to take the time to listen, and we must genuinely believe that the person with the idea has something valuable to contribute. It is a willingness to be open to both the idea and the person sharing the idea.
We must be patient when confronted with new ideas. Most novel and innovative concepts take some explanation. We must allow for the time to hear the ideas and ask questions to make sure we fully understand what is being presented. This requires that we practice active listening, taking in the information and opening ourselves to processing the information. This means giving the person our full attention and thoughtfully considering their ideas.
When we engage in active listening, we are giving our full attention to the person. This means we are focused on what they are saying, and our body language reflects our interest in what the speaker is saying. We are not multi-tasking. We show we are listening by deferring our judgement while we ask questions provide feedback that encourages the speaker to continue and expand.
You Can Change
Take time to reflect on the new idea. Think about both what you have learned and how that information can be applied to various situations. Do you have suggestions to improve or alter the idea? How can it be used in its entirety or be built upon? Think through the idea as a whole and its parts before coming to any conclusions.
Remember too that ideas germinate from people. When people share their ideas, they are making themselves vulnerable to feedback from others. Whether the idea is accepted or not, people will not continue to share their ideas if they feel disrespected or dismissed.
This approach to new ideas and innovation takes time. Is taking a little extra time worth the potential of newer and better ways of doing things? I think so. Burying our heads in the sand because we do not understand something does not help us grow. Plus, the unanswered questions may linger in our minds and take up more of our time.
Putting It All Together
Upon reflection, there have been times when I wish I had taken the time to find someone who could have helped me understand what was taking place. I did have the time. I did have the curiosity. But I still chose not to act. I stayed in my comfort zone rather than risk asking a question and possibly (probably) learning something new. Innovation requires a bit of discomfort.
When was the last time you saw or heard something you didn’t understand? What did you do? Did you take the opportunity to broaden your horizon? Or did you let the moment pass you by and take the ignore-and-remain-ignorant route? Isn’t it interesting how close those two words [ignore – ignorant] are in spelling and how their meanings connect? I challenge you to be curious and open your mind to the world around you. I challenge you to embrace discomfort and the innovation that can come from it.
Revised March 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in November of 2019.