A practical way to gauge your innovation mindset

During my summer break from writing on the blog, I read a lot of articles on the innovation mindset. I am glad this became such an open topic lately. Stéphanie and I recognized that, years ago, as a cornerstone problem for most organizations getting serious about innovation. As with anything we work on, the way we speak of mindset is very practical: “It is an ensemble of patterns of thinking, assumptions that are made about self and the world that are illustrated or observable through its way of working: its behaviors.” (The Culture Framework).

But if the mindset is what shapes the organization itself and structures key processes (and biases), it’s easy to understand that it doesn’t solely stem from the organization exclusively. The personal culture of individuals, their education and former experiences have been critical in shaping their mindset way before they are introduced to the values of any company. At this point you can cue in a full discussion on how to recruit junior executives to change the culture. In this article though, I’ll just try to propose how you can gauge someone’s innovation mindset (yours maybe?).

To get there I will give you one key word: tetralemma.

In our Western hemisphere, from Aristotle to computer science, through the European Renaissance, we have developed a problem-solving mindset relying on dilemmas. Dilemma-thinking is pretty effective. In that world any proposition A is true or false. And when A is true, then its negation not A is false. That doesn’t seem revolutionary, but it’s a powerful tool that scales up nicely to deal with the thousands of interconnected possibilities and allow you to send a satellite in space. Most of the time, this also works in business. Let’s launch a new product, here are the various assumptions we have… After 6 months or 3 years, each business assumption will end up being true or false in various ways, which means we can calculate if we end up having ROI = true.

But while this is a fine engineering or financial mindset, this doesn’t work so well for innovators. An innovation mindset requires not just more flexibility in weighing what is possible or not, it requires to be able to deal with a certain amount of conflicting logic… And this is where understanding what a tetralemma is, will be helpful.

Tetralemmas are initially coming from the mathematical tradition of India (you know, the guys who invented the zero while we were just counting sticks and stones). Instead of dealing with only two outcomes for a proposition A, they add two possibilities: the proposition can be both true and false at the same time, or neither true and false at the same time.

We’re going from:

  • A = true
  • A = false (or if you prefer of not A = true)

To:

  • A = true
  • A = false
  • A = both (true and false)
  • A = neither (true or false)

Say you’re launching a new product today: A = “This quarter, the new product will sell more than last year’s version.” This can only be true or false right? How can this be both true and false?

Glad you asked.

One way to wrap your mind around that is to consider that A is the simplification of a bigger, more complex issue. You could for instance sell more units of the new product, but because it will be remarkably more simple to use, lose subscriptions on after-sale services that you were usually monetizing at a premium. You make more money on the new product, sure, but the average income per customer is dropping this quarter. This indeed translates as A = both (true and false).

Alternatively, your new product launch might be stopped in its tracks by your management for strategic reasons, such as launching an IPO quicker than what was planned to try to surf on an unexpectedly favorable investment market. Your launch is not happening as intended, but you might still score a strategic win during the quarter. Is A true or false now? Neither. Your business reality has been reconfigured.

When launching an innovation project, you always have to face this discussion: the project will have a good ROI or not, but we expect more. We could want to detect new customers’ behaviors before the competitors leverage them. We might want to grow the company’s culture around services instead of products. We maybe seek new technical know-hows no matter if we make money on the new product for now… The direct ROI is an easy dilemma to frame. But an innovation project is always embedded with more opportunities and potential ROIs than what can be foreseen when planning for it and can produce confusing outcomes for the rest of the organization: the product launch failed and yet we learnt something so valuable that it’s still a success.

In business, thinking in tetralemma introduces a productive fuzziness, an intellectual wiggling room in an often too rigid perspective. It embeds systematic “what if” possibilities that cannot be verbalized yet, that you can act on more rapidly when they eventually manifest. As such, it allows you to deal with volatile market opportunities instead of rigidly clutching outdated plans. Knowingly or unknowingly, innovators think in tetralemmas. They are not only resilient to change and unpredictability, they feed on it.

Because a “dilemma mindset” works well to navigate stable markets, successful organizations that harvest stability do tend to promote dilemma thinkers at the top of their ranks (finance, engineering, …). They end up being incapable to deal with instability or worse, radical change anymore. Their culture end up being sterilized.

How ironic is it that thinking only in dilemmas leads to the innovator’s dilemma?