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Innovation Creates Uncertainty

We don’t like uncertainty. It’s not comfortable.

We want innovation. We like creativity. It’s engaging.

But innovation creates uncertainty. So while we say we want creativity and innovation we often reject it because it is new, different and risky. It takes us to places that we are not familiar with and places where we don’t have all the answers. The irony is that while we say we like innovation we develop a deep bias against it.

Interestingly, a recent study from Cornell University states that “Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea.” In other words, our aversion to uncertainty means we find it difficult to even recognize a creative idea when we see it, focused as we are on removing the risky, uncomfortable strain on the status quo.

Consequently, new ideas are often rejected out-of-hand in favor of the tried and trusted at times when we need new ideas the most. This resistance is so strong at times that even supporting objective evidence may not help break down barriers.

The study concludes, “Our results show that regardless of how open minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea.”

If you want to change the world, get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Innovation creates uncertainty. Creativity changes the status quo, but if we want to grow and develop we have to get comfortable with the unknown and accept reasonable risk. Our fear of uncertainty can cause us to reject new ideas just because they are new.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 07:58 AM
| Comments (9) | TrackBacks (0) | Change , Creativity & Innovation


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Nicely put, Michael. I think this is so essential for organizations, especially startups and early stage, that this should be taught in (more) MBA programs. The organization I work for runs an award program for "top small workplaces," and a theme we see year after year among those that rise to the top of the pool is having practices -- sometimes even dictated by a core value -- that encourage "fast failure." In other words, trying something new, learning from it even if it falls flat, and quickly moving on without the overhanging fear of reprimand.

I was just reading this study last night. Great summary. I wonder though, what some more concrete ways to get our people comfortable with uncertainty are.

Mark, thanks for the comment. I agree. Putting a proper perspective on failure is a key to dealing with uncertainty.

David, that's a good question and would make a good post. I believe at its core it's an insecurity issue that we all face to one degree or another. So creating a culture that minimizes that issue is important. As Mark noted, "fast failure" is part of it. Also, making it clear what is valued and knowing that your worth isn't tied to knowing all the answers.

Thank you for pointing us to this study. I believe uncertainty plays a huge role in innovation in the construction industry. My doctoral research in the early 90s showed that innovative contractors were the ones who had organizational mechanisms to reduce the uncertainty of the innovative building products they adopted. Research sponsored by the Construction Industry Institute completed two years ago showed that the intolerance of uncertainty and risk inherent in innovation explains much of the industry’s resistance to innovation. The sooner leaders acknowledge the need to accept uncertainty, the more successful we will be at this innovation game!

More useful would be ways of overcoming the uncertainty, otherwise this article seems to state the obvious.

Michael (Toole), thanks for the example. We often fear what we most need.

Mike, I wish it were more obvious, but that is the first step. As we get caught up in our jobs we forget the obvious things we know we should do and instead we behave reactively. After awareness, we need to reflect on our behavior to see how this “fear of uncertainty” relates to what we do and think. By being aware we have a better chance to respond in ways that we know are more productive. Thanks for leaving a comment.

Hello Michael,

Great post.
We need to keep challenging the status quo to inspire innovation. This does often make people defensive and uncomfortable as who would want to upset the apple cart ? But, there are organizations who have created a culture that encourages taking chances and often and naturally see more success in the long term. Did you read Seth Godin's blog today ? It touches on the same theme.
Twitter : @suchimishhra

Thanks Suchitra. Yes, it's changing the culture from the top down. I'll check out Seth's post.

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