Fernando Fischmann

Stop Sabotaging Your Ability to Innovate

18 November, 2021 / Articles

In 1974 a young Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson was assigned a seemingly low-stakes task: to see if there was any practical use for a recent invention capable of turning light into data. He built a device that could capture images and digitally display them on a screen and eagerly presented it to his bosses. But he made a tactical blunder: He billed the new technology as “filmless photography.” That positioning clashed with the very raison d’être of his audience—executives whose careers depended on the sale and processing of film—all but guaranteeing a tepid response. Instead of seizing an advantage in the consumer market, Kodak held off for nearly two decades, by which time several competitors were contesting the market space.

Why did Sasson make such a deeply flawed pitch? He was carried away by enthusiasm for his invention. He later said, “It never occurred to me that I was at odds with the fundamental mission of the company for the last 100 years.”

Innovators like Sasson can be their own worst enemies, derailed by personal traits, such as confidence and optimism, that are essential to creativity but can be toxic when taken to an extreme, and by emotions such as fear, doubt, regret, and frustration, which are typical when trying something new but can too easily stall or destroy an effort.

Having interviewed and studied hundreds of successful and unsuccessful innovators, we’ve learned that many don’t appreciate, and therefore struggle to manage, psychological hurdles like these. And although practical advice abounds on how to innovate, from design thinking to lean start-up and sprint methodologies, in-depth guidance on conquering the mental challenges involved is harder to find.

In what follows, we draw on published interviews, videos, and speeches to describe the obstacles encountered by some high-profile entrepreneurs and illuminate the paths by which they moved forward.

The Fear of Getting Started

Fear can strike at any time, but it may be particularly pronounced as you contemplate crossing the threshold from thinking to doing. Pursuing your idea almost certainly involves risk—to your savings, your reputation, your career. Jeff Bezos has recalled telling his manager at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw about his notion to sell books online. “I think it would be a better idea for somebody who didn’t already have a good job,” his boss replied. For Bezos, that comment distilled the dilemma: Should he jeopardize his current comfort, status, and security for the uncertain prospect of future gains? When facing similar doubts, the following tactics can help.

Consult your future self.

People are hardwired to avoid risky choices by magnifying the negative consequences that might ensue. An especially potent magnifier is what’s called future regret: We imagine the self-recrimination we’ll feel if our venture turns out badly. The desire to avoid that feeling encourages conservatism—but you can counteract it. Instead of focusing on the pain that would accompany a failed effort, imagine how you’ll feel years hence if you play it safe and shelve your idea.

Bezos struggled for a couple of days before finding a productive way to frame his decision. He pictured himself as an old man reflecting on his life. “Would I regret leaving this company?” he asked himself. “I thought, When I’m 80, I’m not going to think about that; I’m not even going to remember it. But…I know for a fact, I have this idea, and if I don’t try, I’m going to regret [it]. As soon as I thought about it that way, I knew I had to give it a try.” By projecting himself into the future, Bezos got a taste of the existential regret that comes from choices that run counter to our convictions or need for growth.

Let fear be a teacher.

Compounding fears about what you’re giving up, you may also worry about the odds of success. You might question the viability of your idea, your capacity to develop it, or your ability to break into an established market or influence a mature industry. Such fears may crystallize into a generalized foreboding that can bring you to a standstill. A common tactic for managing them is to suppress them and carry on regardless. But research shows that in doing so, you may miss important red flags. Fear isn’t just an inhibiting force; it can be a powerful teacher, signaling that you are underequipped or underinformed. So pinpointing the source of your angst is critical to addressing it.

As Bezos committed to pursuing his venture, he was plagued by fears that it would fail. He told his parents that there was a 70% chance they would not get their seed money back. He was confident in the soundness of his idea, having rigorously analyzed the landscape and determined that books were the most viable products to sell online, but he was less sure that he had the knowledge to successfully execute on it. He realized that he could bolster his chances by securing access to a rich pool of tech talent and a wide array of books, so he relocated to Seattle—home of Microsoft and just a few hours’ drive from the largest book distributor in the United States. His fears drove him to work out key technical and logistical challenges in advance.

By contrast, Bill Gates had great confidence in his ability to execute on the idea that would become Microsoft, but he had to overcome two personal liabilities: introversion and a youthful appearance. So when he pitched his (yet to be written) software to the makers of the Altair kit computer—making the call from his Harvard dorm—he introduced himself as Paul Allen, his unofficial and two-years-older business partner. Gates knew that if the customer showed interest, the more outgoing and mature-looking Allen would take the meeting. Years later Allen told the Harvard Gazette, “I had my beard going and at least looked like an adult, while Bill still could pass for a high school sophomore.” Although Gates and Allen later fell out, Gates has said that entering into their partnership was the best business decision he ever made.

Once you’ve identified the source of your fears, you can seek information or partners to compensate for your shortcomings in terms of competence or credibility or both.

The Frustration of Setbacks

You’ve probably heard the adage about learning from failure. But as Indiana University’s Dean Shepherd has emphasized, the process is not automatic: It requires conscious effort and discipline. These steps can guide you.

Dissect your failure.

The trouble with failure, beyond the obvious, is that it generates negative emotions that impede learning: denial, anger, despair, and self-blame. Innovators are especially prone to those feelings because they identify so closely with their projects. To avoid that pitfall, start by dissecting your failure. Exactly what went wrong, and why? Which premises were false? Which ones held true?

Jimmy Wales was keenly frustrated in 2000 about the snail-like progress of his first online encyclopedia venture, Nupedia. He and his editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger, assumed that it “needed to be superacademic, or people wouldn’t trust it.” The entries were indeed on a par with academic publications—but so was the pace of production. “I spent about $250,000 getting the first 12 articles through the process,” Wales has said. Eventually he decided to investigate the problem by writing an entry himself. He realized that the peer-review system was incredibly cumbersome for his contributors, who were unpaid. At that moment Wales understood that his initial plan wouldn’t work. It was the first step in coming to terms with his disappointment and finding a path forward.

Face your grief head-on.

As an innovator, you’ll experience major letdowns, reversals, or rejections as threats to your dream and your ego. To deal with those deeply felt losses, our IMD colleague George Kohlrieser proposes a three-step process based on research with thousands of executives. It requires first bringing the grief to conscious awareness—putting a name to what you’re feeling and discussing it with family, friends, and others to make sense of it. That will help you take the next two steps: accepting and then letting go of the loss, and taking action in a new direction.

Shortly after Wales’s eye-opening experience with Nupedia, he and Sanger created a separate encyclopedia website powered by wiki software—technology that allows multiple people to work interactively on drafts. In just two weeks 600 entries came in. The contributors were not recognized authorities, and there was no way to control the quality of their submissions. “If I had tied my ego to the original design…I would have stopped,” Wales has said. But because he was already half-resigned to moving on from Nupedia, he was able to shift gears. And so Wikipedia was born.

Reframe rejection.

When James Dyson, inventor of the vacuum cleaner that bears his name, presented his product to the leading vacuum brands, he expected them to jump at the chance to license the first bagless sweeper. But he received the same sort of frosty reaction that Sasson had gotten from his bosses at Kodak, and for a similar reason: The new technology was seen as a threat to the companies’ business model, whereby customers paid for machines once and for bags on a regular basis. Dyson reframed the rejections, focusing on what the companies hadn’t said: They’d offered no compelling rationale for turning him down. “If they’d given me a really good reason, then I would have got nervous,” he has recalled.

Dyson eventually licensed his design to a Japanese company with no history in vacuum cleaners and thus no reason to protect the sales of bags. It marketed the sweeper as a futuristic appliance to upmarket consumers exclusively in Japan, under the label G-Force. The royalties from that niche success helped Dyson manufacture a mainstream product under his own name.

Failure can present an opportunity for a turnaround. But if you’re stuck in your grief, you may miss the chance.

An Excess of Creativity

Creativity is, of course, indispensable to innovation. But too much of it can backfire. Your appetite for new ideas may override the need to stay on course. “I’m always superoptimistic about every new idea,” Wales told Wired, “which is great, as long as you’re mature enough to be able to say, ‘I was superexcited about this two months ago and obviously I was on crack.’”

Creativity relies on curiosity and openness. Curiosity drives your questioning and sensemaking—the search for patterns, causality, and opportunities, and your efforts to bridge the gap between what you know and what you don’t. But unbounded curiosity can lead you astray in two ways. You may get drawn down a rabbit hole and lose sight of your original purpose. Or you may become mired in reflection, trying to plan for every contingency.

Openness to new experiences and ideas inspires you to ask What if? questions and connect the dots between unrelated concepts or domains. But an excess can cause you to jump from one idea to the next or bombard you with irrelevant details. If you’ve bogged down in your main endeavor, it can lure you away with the siren call of novelty.

To ensure that your creativity remains a useful fuel rather than a dangerous distraction, you can:

Recognize the moment of greatest peril.

The biggest challenge in controlling your curiosity and openness comes as you are shifting from reflection to action—a time when you can ill afford to be distracted. This can be a struggle even for successful entrepreneurs.

Take Elon Musk. After making his fortune as a software entrepreneur, he founded SpaceX in 2002, aiming to lower the cost of space travel enough that one day Mars might be colonized. As he was getting the venture up and running—moving into its active phase—a project to create an electric roadster caught his eye. He invested in Tesla, became its chairman, and led its fundraising efforts. By 2008 he was the CEO of two cash-guzzling start-ups. Although both ultimately became viable businesses, the stress pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown that year, and the businesses’ dueling demands nearly caused both companies to go under. “We only narrowly survived,” he has said.

Musk concedes that his overactive imagination is as much a curse as a blessing. “It’s like a never-ending explosion,” he said on The Joe Rogan Experience, one that makes maintaining focus on his two flagship ventures a struggle. “Prioritizing has usually been out of desperation, not choice.” The takeaway for innovators is that the same inquisitiveness and expansive thinking that fuel your creativity can lead you to overreach, not only jeopardizing your venture but also taking a dangerous personal toll.

Set limits on your involvement.

Recognizing a tendency to let your creativity distract you is the first step in harnessing it. You can counteract it by limiting your involvement at the testing and implementation stages of your project. Jimmy Wales learned that his talent for coming up with new ideas did not necessarily help when it came time to execute on them. “In terms of both…Wikipedia [and] Wikimedia [the parent foundation], there’s a CEO who actually runs things on a day-to-day basis,” he told an interviewer. “I try not to be a bottleneck in any process.”

Wales takes a similar hands-off role with his other ventures, such as Fandom and WikiTribune, often acting more as a catalyst than as a traditional leader. “This gives me the freedom to go out and evangelize,” he has explained. “These are things I’m good at: talking to people and getting people excited about our work….That means that most of the headaches belong to…people who are actually good at [execution].”

This isn’t to say that creativity has no role in the later stages of innovation. But it should be on tap, not on top.

Enlist a counterweight.

Another option is to find a partner who can offset your creative exuberance. Wales hired Sanger to provide the linear thinking and rigor his encyclopedia ventures needed. Steve Jobs chose the calm, consistent pragmatist Tim Cook as a foil for his rampant creativity.

Of course, not all innovators can just hire or promote someone to be a counterweight. For those working in an established organization—intrapreneurs—the solution may be to seek a colleague’s perspective. Recall that in his enthusiasm, Sasson neglected to step back, analyze his innovation in light of Kodak’s existing business model, and tailor his presentation to win his bosses’ support. Had he balanced his excitement with input from sales or marketing, he might have made a far more compelling pitch. “I was all ready to answer questions about how it worked,” he has said. “They asked me questions about what the impact of this would be, what the ramifications would be, why would anybody want to look at their picture on a television set?…Well, I really hadn’t thought about any of that.”

An Acceleration into Hyperdrive

Drive—a mix of tenacity and passion—is another core quality needed to breathe life into big ideas. But as with creativity, you can overdo it.

Demis Hassabis, founder of the pioneering AI start-up DeepMind, regards tenacity as table stakes for entrepreneurs. “You’ve got to go through the pain barriers to get anywhere useful,” he has said. Passion supports tenacity by sustaining your energy amid setbacks and doubts. But if unbridled, it can hamper critical thinking.

Identify what’s most important—and let other things go.

Unbounded drive may lead you to persist with a dead-end goal or aim at an unachievable target. Before launching DeepMind, Hassabis started a gaming company to build on the success of Theme Park, for which he’d been the lead programmer and a codesigner. He set out to create a nation-building game from the ground up, with no holds barred. “I wanted to create new graphics engines, new AI engines…make an artistic statement,” he has recalled. The result, Republic, took twice as long as expected, embodied only a fraction of the original vision, and got lukewarm reviews. It made money for its publisher but never for Hassabis. “We bit off too much,” he has acknowledged. “You want to pick what dimension of innovation are you going to push hard.”

Commit to breaks.

The immersive nature of innovation can distance you from reality, causing you to neglect close relationships that are important sources of sustenance. You may alienate your personal support group—what Kohlrieser calls your secure base—as your fervor makes you less approachable and less willing to listen.

The conventional remedy is to take time for rest and reflection. But an intention to do so often crumbles as the pressure mounts. The future benefits of taking a break right now cannot compete with the immediate payoff of solving your latest problem—a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting. Over time you may forfeit not just your health and well-being but any opportunity to reorient your approach.

Knowing that you may resist “pausing” when it’s most needed, you can commit in advance to doing so, scheduling breaks and asking others to hold you to them. More generally, you can tell your team that your passion and determination sometimes get the better of you and ask them to provide the perspective and flexibility you are inclined to lose. Rely on them to help you question your assumptions, envision alternative solutions, and possibly pivot or cut your losses. “Pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends,” Elon Musk said in a TED talk. “Hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.”

As you pursue your breakthrough idea, you’ll experience periods of anxiety, confusion, and discouragement that may stall your efforts. At other times, when signals are positive, you may get blindly carried away. We have focused on renowned innovators to show that they, too, must learn to cope with these swirls of emotion. They must leverage their best qualities and shore up or work around their shortcomings.

Whatever your own strengths and weaknesses, you can manage them only if you know what they are. Research on leadership shows that a lack of self-awareness doesn’t just mean that weaknesses may push you off track; it can turn strengths into derailers as well.

You must become mindful of your habitual ways of thinking and behaving, your outlier tendencies and bad habits, what gives you energy and what frustrates you. Armed with those insights, you can reach out for feedback or mentoring—for help in becoming a more skillful version of yourself.

Harvard Business Review


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