Embracing Ignorance and Failure to Innovate

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What drives scientists to venture unflinchingly into the unknown without any guarantee of discovering the next big breakthrough that will generate headlines? Ignorance, according to Stuart Firestein, author of a compelling book, Ignorance: How It Drives Science.

Firestein reveals that “ignorance propels scientific discovery” and asks the provocative question: “What if we cultivated ignorance instead of fearing it?” Even more stunning is that he says the most predictable thing about predictions is how often they are wrong. In fact, he likens science to rooting around in the dark for a black cat that may or may not be there.

Scientists feed off of what they don’t know. Mystery marvels and motivates them. However, there is one thing they are sure of. Failure is inevitable. On the contrary, business executives are allergic to the words ignorance and failure. Ignorance is synonymous with weakness and failure is not an option. As I delved deeper into this book, I asked myself: is it possible for the IT leaders to loosen their grip on the handle bars so they can create the market-facing innovations that wow customers and spark conversation?

Technology innovations at Fortune 500 companies make news because they are rare. Most IT departments are focused on making incremental improvements in a controlled environment. IT automates business processes. They reshape their own function. In other words, they play it safe. Collaborating with others and testing products and services on customers is too unpredictable and messy.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on internal enhancements. However, if you want innovation that inspires, you have to swan dive into the dark. Firestien says “the problem with the dichotomy between basic and applied research is that it’s fundamentally false. Following ignorance leads to marvelous inventions, but trying to short circuit the process by going directly to the application rarely produces anything of value.”

What CIOs Need to Unlearn to Innovate

Innovation is breaking out of the laboratories and becoming everyone’s responsibility. Business executives are especially eyeing the CIO for participation as companies adopt continuous innovation models. Continuous innovation attempts to harness the creative and analytical powers of the entire organization to delight customers with new products and sophisticated buying experiences. It’s important that those involved don’t harbor misconceptions about the process of scientific discovery. It’s crucial to understand what you can control and what you can’t. This notion might be hardest to swallow as executives try to determine the ROI of innovation initiatives.

Firestein tells his students, “Let’s get the data then worry about a hypothesis.”

I couldn’t agree more when it comes to the ROI of innovation initiatives. Executives often try to invent an ROI out of thin air. You have to invest some upfront seed money to surface enough data to create an ROI. How do you know what it will cost if you don’t even know what it is? Trying to control what you can’t diverts attention from what needs to be managed.

Innovation is an uncertain and bold endeavor that can feel pretty darn squeamish and risky at times. If it doesn’t, you’re not doing it right.

Have you read the book? Do you agree that the difference between basic and applied research is an illusion?

Image shared by Patrick Feller

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  • The only difference between science and business is that most of the time science is more on “theory” thing and this is not always applicable for business. We must find ways to be knowledgeable in our chosen field so that we can be successful and we must also think of some ways to stand out from the crowd. There are a lot of competitors out there so being unique also plays a big role.

  • @Chris I think the overall difference between science and business in this context is permission. Science, and the funding behind it, knows that research can take years and produce nothing. Business has little stomach for that. Still, any org can foster innovation by emphasizing the importance of the inquiry and learning rather than the business return. To work, this has to be sincere because people are too smart to take risks when rewards aren’t really there.