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To be a great innovator, learn to embrace and thrive in uncertainty
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
She pioneered a line of hair care and beauty products for people of color early in the 20th century, and the recent Netflix series "Self Made" details the story of this talented innovator and the challenges she overcame on the way to her success.
To accomplish her goals, she had to face overwhelming uncertainties. How would she finance her business? Would her partnerships fail? Would her products sell? Would ruthless competition and racism get in her way? Madame Walker's future was far from certain when she began her journey, but that did not dissuade her.
It is tempting to think that innovators are a breed apart or perhaps lucky to be in the right place and time. But research shows this is not the case. So what characteristics do innovators like Madam Walker have that lead them to the seemingly serendipitous moment? What makes for a successful innovator or entrepreneur?
I am a researcher and professor who studies strategy and entrepreneurship. I am also myself an entrepreneur, angel investor and board member for startups and innovative firms. Pop culture might have you believe it is a tolerance for or even an obsession with risk that makes great innovators. But in fact, research has for decades demonstrated that innovators and entrepreneurs are no more risk-taking than the average person.
Generally, innovators are much more comfortable making decisions under conditions of uncertainty than the average person. Additionally, innovators tend to have a set of skills that allows them to better navigate this uncertainty. My experience and research has shown that not only are these abilities effective, but they can also be learned and practiced and anyone can improve their innovation skills.
What is risk? What is uncertainty?
Risk is when the factors determining success or failure are out of your control but the odds of success are known – a game of dice, for example. You can't control whether a 2 or a 12 is rolled, but you know the odds.
Uncertainty is when the factors determining success or failure are not necessarily out of your control, but are simply unknown. It is accepting a challenge to play a game that you do not completely know the rules of. Innovators tend to be more willing to venture into the unknown, and therefore are more likely to engage in ambitious projects even when outcomes and probabilities are a mystery.
Interestingly, risk and uncertainty appear to trigger activity in different parts of the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has allowed researchers to discover that risk analysis is a largely rational and calculation-driven process, but uncertainty triggers the ancient fight-or-flight part of the brain. This research would suggest that experienced innovators are better able to maintain their analytical capabilities in spite of the adrenaline and instinctual response that arises when confronting uncertainty.
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
Skills of innovation can be learned
The chemical response to risk and uncertainty may be hardwired in our brains, but that doesn't mean you are either born an innovator or not. Innovative capacity can be learned.
Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and the late Clay Christensen spent years investigating the characteristics of successful innovators and broadly divide the skills of innovation into two categories: delivery skills and discovery skills.
Delivery skills include quantitative analysis, planning, detail-oriented implementation and disciplined execution. These are certainly essential characteristics for success in many occupations, but for innovation, discovery must come before delivery.
Discovery skills are the ones more involved in developing ideas and managing uncertain situations. The most notable are:
- The ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas and contexts.
- A tendency to question assumptions and the status quo.
- A habit of looking at what is contributing to a problem before rushing to a solution.
- The frequent use of systematic experimentation to prove hypotheses about cause and effect.
- The ability to network and broaden a set of relationships, even without an intentional purpose.
Like any skills, these can be learned and cultivated through a combination of guidance, practice and experience. By asking the right questions, being observant or mindful, experimenting and networking with the right supporters, innovators will be more likely to identify opportunity and succeed.
My colleagues' and my own research and experience are summed up in our book "The Titanic Effect." We describe the PEP model of successful entrepreneurs and innovators. It stands for passion, experience and persistence.
Successful innovators are passionate about the problem they are solving and share this passion with friends and family, potential customers, supporters and other stakeholders.
Innovators also tend to have personal experience with the problem they are solving, and this yields valuable insight and firsthand knowledge.
Finally, innovation takes persistence. As Walker experienced, growing a business – even with proven products – does not happen overnight. It takes someone willing to push the boulder uphill to make it happen, and often, the more disruptive the innovation, the longer society may take to embrace it. Madam Walker amply personifies the PEP model.
Innovation now and in the future
During this pandemic, many people might be inclined to batten down the hatches, tighten their belts and ride things out by sticking to what they already know.
But uncertainty and change create opportunity and a need for innovation. The pandemic has created or exacerbated many problems that are ripe for innovative solutions.
Practices that were until recently on the fringe of acceptance – such as telehealth, food or grocery delivery, e-sports and online education – are now being accepted by mainstream society. As with anything relatively new, there is lots of room for radical improvement.
Now is not the time to put blinders on and close your eyes to uncertainty. If you build your discovery skills, you are more likely to create opportunity and persist through uncertainty. Like Walker, anyone can cultivate the abilities to navigate uncertainty and create positive change. Innovators are not a breed apart.
- The uncertainty pandemic: You have more control than you think ›
- Learning in the face of uncertainty - Big Think ›
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
The next era in American history can look entirely different. It's up to us to choose.
- The timeline of America post-WWII can be divided into two eras, according to author and law professor Ganesh Sitaraman: the liberal era which ran through the 1970s, and the current neoliberal era which began in the early 1980s. The latter promised a "more free society," but what we got instead was more inequality, less opportunity, and greater market consolidation.
- "We've lived through a neoliberal era for the last 40 years, and that era is coming to an end," Sitaraman says, adding that the ideas and policies that defined the period are being challenged on various levels.
- What comes next depends on if we take a proactive and democratic approach to shaping the economy, or if we simply react to and "deal with" market outcomes.
A new MIT report proposes how humans should prepare for the age of automation and artificial intelligence.
- A new report by MIT experts proposes what humans should do to prepare for the age of automation.
- The rise of intelligent machines is coming but it's important to resolve human issues first.
- Improving economic inequality, skills training, and investment in innovation are necessary steps.