“I wouldn’t start from here” - Where does innovation come from? #40 #cong17

By Dr Denis O’Hora.

One of my favourite stories about getting directions in rural Ireland is one in which a tourist in Connemara asks a local how to get to Letterfrack. The local replies,  “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”. 

This reply is hilarious and infuriating since, if we’re lost in the middle of nowhere, we don’t have a choice about where to start from. We’re stuck where we are, and we need some idea of where to go next. Sometimes, at home or at work, we can feel stuck, confronted by a situation that requires a new way of thinking, but unable to figure out how to get there. Even though it is often said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, innovation often seems most difficult when we need it most.  

The difference between being stuck in Connemara and being stuck in life is that we do have some freedom in where we start from. However, in order to access that freedom, we need to figure where we are first. That is, what are our embedded ideas about our current situation that we take for granted and we are not even aware of? To help find these embedded ideas, it is worth thinking about some biases in decision making that make it difficult to change of behaviour. 

Anchoring. The first piece of information we contact when making a decision has a much bigger effect than later information. It often provides a standard against which later information is compared. Since our usual approach is the first approach we consider, it is over-weighted in our decisions.

Availability heuristic. Information that is easy to remember has a stronger effect on our decisions. It often feels more common than it truly is. Since our usual approach is easy to remember, it will be over-weighted. 

Confirmation bias. We seek out information to support (confirm) our current ideas. In this way, we miss information that disconfirms our current approach.

Endowment effect. What we have is more valuable that what we can get. We need to be paid more to give up something than we would pay to get it. This works for our ideas too.

Loss aversion. The fear of losing a certain amount is stronger than the lure of gaining the same amount. Losing hurts more than gaining feels good. Any new approach will introduce uncertainty in being able to hold what we currently have. 

The status quo bias. We prefer things to stay the same. Partly this is due to loss aversion and anchoring since our current situation becomes the baseline and we fear losing out compared to this situation, even if those losses are only short-term.   

Awareness of these biases is the first step to seeing where we are so that we can begin to generate new ideas and new behaviour. However, to figure out where we are takes time, and in moments of necessity, it seems that we have no time. All of the biases I’ve mentioned provide short cuts that replace thoughtful decision making and we rely on them more when time is constrained. As a result, we end up redoing what we’ve done before, hoping for a new result. Even though it might seem obvious that if we want to change the results we are getting, we need to change what we are doing, we often don’t realize how perfectly designed we are to get the results we are getting right now. We need to grant ourselves time and be willing to face uncertainty, at least in the short-term, in order to innovate.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie