Rejecting New Ideas

All innovation starts with ideas. Sure, we talk about innovation as disruptive, or global, or related to market moves, and certainly spread over social media but the universal element of all innovation is this: an idea.

And while I think most people like to think of themselves as innovators or at the very least, able to drive innovation, I am coming to question whether we are as qualified as we’d like to be.

Now you might very well be offended by that idea. And if you are, that only provides my point.


This is where my story begins. I just used the phrase “offended by this idea.” And I did that on purpose.  If you’re rejecting, or shocked, or offended, or angered by an idea, you’re probably not as good at innovation as you could be.

But don’t worry; taking offense is actually quite a normal human response. New stuff is hard. Change is hard. And new ideas equal change. Thus, ideas are hard. 

Which is not to say, that we don’t already do innovation well.  We do! Human kind keeps plodding forward. Though we have our setbacks—most of them caused by our own stupidity—you have to admit that things are better than they were 10,000, 1,000, even 100 years ago. Heck, just think back to the dark ages of 2001: there were no smart phones, no social media (twitter!), no FailBlog, no Priuses, and Domino’s pizza sucked even more than it does now…

But it’s my contention that we could be doing a LOT better, moving a LOT faster, and driving MORE and BETTER innovation within our organizations.

You see, I’ve come to question whether we’re actually any good at taking in new ideas. I’ve already shared that I think we deny the power of ideas by limiting WHO can have them and even to the point of seeking permission from others about whether we’re allowed to have ideas here in an earlier post called “Can Anyone Innovate?”.

Beyond the “who” should have ideas and the associated element of conformity/permission, I’m wondering if we also limit “what” ideas are valid, based on our bias. I question if we let new ideas have power or if we guard against them.

Let me use history to illustrate this point. There was a time when many thought that black people shouldn’t have equal rights in this country, or questioned whether women should be allowed to vote. In the same vein, there used to be a belief that smoking made men looked macho, as demonstrated by Marlboro or in Egypt, that the people in power were right to suppress their people; otherwise, we risk peace. Each of those beliefs was once “true” and then is no longer considered “a truth”. It most cases, it took many, many years for that change to happen. And things stayed the same in the broader culture until people could see the new idea itself. Essentially, it took time to see something that was already there, anew. Once we humans were able to accept a new idea, then the social change happened.

This post is not about political correctness. It’s about how bias is built into our neurology. Quick lesson in how the brain works: imagine it is the security guard at your corporate headquarters.  Lots of people flood in and not every single pass can be checked. Who gets in first and fastest? Those whom the guard has seen every day, for the last five years. Familiarity is what the brain favors. The new and strange has a tough time gaining entrance*.

Let me just summarize that a little more definitively: the way our brain works means we actually guard against, and filter out, and deny power to new ideas.

Our brains know how to essentially build a great echo chamber so there’s harmony of ideas.  And recently . Eli Pariser, has been raising visibility to how and why Google and Facebook have recently started to change what they present to any person based on what they know about the person. It’s called a filter bubble. If you have only clicked on funny cat videos, and only interacted with 12 friends who all vote like you do, your other friends who have a different range of opinion on the political spectrum will no longer be presented to you in FB. And similarly, your set of recommendations on Google won’t include posts say, from the Atlantic or Economist. Human have already had filters in the form of our brains and those filters are now being automated. Or at least, Google and FaceBook are taking the behavior you most demonstrate, and maximizing that.

Suddenly, you are thus even less likely to be exposed to something novel, unexpected, or uncomfortable. While humans are already incredibly capable of setting up those mental Guards to not let any new ideas in, we’ve now got help in the form of automating our echo chambers. (Note to Google: I am not excited by this “help…”)

This human bias — our preferences, passions, and love — for familiarity leaves us idea blind: we are unable or unwilling to see ideas when it does not come from sources that are familiar to us….

Perhaps in who delivers the idea; do they look like us,

Perhaps in education levels: do they sound like us,

And especially, in ideology, that they think like us.

And at any particular moment, it feels fine. There is no immediate consequence because of this guard at the door.

It just doesn’t work very well for innovation and for the long run of competitiveness.

The idea that a black person can vote has certainly shifted. But for many years, the mass majority of Americans could not see past our own biases. Today, women board of director positions account for about 10% of the seats, and yet represent about 60% of all buying decisions. Corporate board and top executive gender inequity might just be our modern day issue of bias, at play.

So, as we think about whether each of us denies power to new ideas, let me just ask you the question on a practical level … how would you be more open to me if I represented the new idea? I am a brown, opinionated woman, not educated in the big ivy leagues but worked my way through education starting with a 2-year community college, and I don’t have a big organization that my personal brand is currently associated with …. Just think about how none of those things fit within what you look for to prove to yourself this person is worth paying attention to… Pause for a second as you take that in…. Would you be open to me? Would you follow me on twitter? Would you include me in your Follow Friday recommendations? Likely not. But maybe I’m being biased.

My own experience is this. Quite often when people first hear me talk, they spend the first few minutes trying to figure why I lack any Indian accent. They don’t mean to do it; they just do. You see, I don’t fit a bucket they’ve ever seen (most speakers on stage look nothing like me) and I don’t talk on expected ideas, or the flavors of the day. Any audience of mine likely has to work that much harder to even consider my ideas … to get past those security guards that don’t know what to do with…newness.

When we are biased (which the neurology says we all are), we are actually trapped in place, stuck in our own initial spot from which we started.

And this only gets worse the more advanced we are in our careers… As our careers progress, we often get caught into knowing more of what we already know. It is like following the rabbit down the hole in the Alice in Wonderland metaphor — we keep going and going deeper into the depth of our domain.

But that means we simply could miss the interdisciplinary evolution of ideas or the ways in which the world could become topsy turvy.

Research done by the best firms including Frog and Tim Brown’s IDEO have shown us that most innovations emerge when different intellectual disciplines collide – those things that are beyond each of our own domain… so my question to you – to all of us — is …this:

How do we enable innovation? How do we get past that part of our brain that shuts down or denies power to new ideas?

How do we have ways to explore the edges of possibilities that surround each of us?

To start, maybe we should listen and select more to more divergent ideas online, so that we are more likely to at least consider divergent ideas. Rather than just checking HuffPo or NYT, maybe we also pay attention to Al-Jazeera?

Perhaps at work, we could enable our teams to have debates regularly at meetings, to share the Why and the Why Not? Perhaps, then, we’ll hear more contrary points of view. In media options, if we normally only subscribe to People, maybe we ought to pick up the Economist at the doctor’s office?

In conference choices, if we are subject matter experts and only go to say, tech or medical conferences, maybe we ought to spend some time at interdisciplinary events like TED or PopTECH? As you know I already think going to TED is worthwhile…

Maybe we ought to tune out the cat videos which satisfice the lizard brain but not the fuller reflective side of who we are?

Maybe we ought to hold new ideas in a kind of  holding area where we can consider it, rather than tossing it out. Big ideas deserve to inform us and shape us. How about we invite them in and let them stay a while, before we decide if they can influence us.

This ultimately does pay out. Innovation is all about the new perspective and new idea. If we are to change what we create and enable the interdisciplinary view of the world, we need to be open to changing who we are, and what we believe, by what ideas we allow to influence us. The ideas that we allow in, informs our perspective, which informs our ability to create and out innovate others.  

That means we need to think about and figure out what we allow to surround us.

How else could we allow, rather than deny, Power to Ideas?

<Please add your own ideas in the comments section.>


(*Many thanks to @M_Heffernan for that common-sense explanation. She’s got an interesting new book out on blindness worth reading.)


6 Replies

  1. Clear, engaging and purely Nilofer. I love your candor not only about your world view but you sense of yourself. Brava!Before we can innovate to any great extent business must rethink how it treats employees.Most employees are required to work in a cubicle, constrained to policies and procedures and there is a penalty for doing things outside that box.There is no latitude for innovation. There is no permission to experience and fail to improve. Instead of an incentive to improvement, there is incentive to report out non-conformers. There is also a culture of mid-managers who spend much of their day making and enforcing policies, controlling and ‘correcting’ those in their charge.Not until we can really trust the people we hire to do the work in the best way possible, can we begin to innovate. When we need to ask permission to go to the bathroom or be publicly humiliated for not pushing a time out button. or worse, lose a job over that, we are in serious trouble. Regrettably, we are in serious trouble. Today, only the entrepreneur has the need and the freedom to innovate. And then they grow up and begin to command and control. They forget their roots. Very few companies have grown under a culture of innovation. They exist, but far from the norm. We have to change the norm.

  2. When you speak about innovation, biases, and matters of the brain, you’re talking my language. Not because I have a Ph.D. from MIT (which I don’t). Because I walk the talk. I am a neuroscientist by results and invention, inventor of a neurological test method that I used in my last 4 brain shunt surgeries (1992 auto accident and shunt placement).Most innovation comes from need, i.e. motivation. But the masses have it wrong: money is NOT the best driver of innovation. Survival IS! And it is survival that causes mankind to look past the biases, push oneself harder than you ever had before, be creative, and work well with others. Love – is also a great motivator because it has passion. And passion is a great driver of innovation.In contrast, GREED is often the great motivation killer! It can be good if it is also driven by LOVE. But without love and passion, it is filled with ego and biases that often prevent people from working together well.My biggest innovation in recent years is actually something that has been around for thousands of years with our early ancestors: group drumming or drum circles. It was exposed to this 7 years ago, and today research and lead drumming groups of up to 300. It nurtures creativity, excitement, passion, patience, and connectedness, and these traits then enable a higher level of team-building that can be applied to many work and organizational applications.I think I learned of your blog via LinkedIn Orange County. Check me out at out of Newport Beach, CA.Stephen DolleCEO & soon to be author

  3. great post – ironically it fits in perfectly with my own world view / perspective / set of biases!i like the concept of “current truth” – that which we hold to be only the accepted viewpoint at the moment. Does suggest that we appreciate it can/will change.Incidentally, it was quite hard to get to submit a comment.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. Graeme, I appreciate you being kind. “thoughtful” posts are not often well regarded in this day of short, short work. Mitch, as you know, changing the norms when it’s not working is my thing. 😉 I’m thinking a lot about what keeps people stuck or conforming in big organizations so we can get them out of that trap. More on that son. Professor Mac, you make some excellent points. Good luck with your book. And The Idea Hunter, make sure you follow a bunch of people who don’t agree with you or that make you uncomfortable…that’ll keep you fresh. Try Umair Haque or Jeff Jarvis as two smart folks who defy convention. (I normally respond to most comments as they are made but this last few weeks has been out of norm due to family/spring break stuff. Thanks for being understanding.)

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