Even though we all know that success in business means taking risks on new and unproven innovations, we are still creatures of habit, programmed by evolution to favor the safe and familiar. Thus following your natural instincts and intuition in growing your business is often the worst thing you can do. Yet training yourself and your team to practice unsafe thinking is scary.
For example, every entrepreneur selling online and struggling with growth, seems to come asking for money to expand into retail (safe and known territory). As an investor, I see retailers failing and downsizing all around me, so I’m looking for founders with new and innovative business models that I’ve never seen before, like the shared-economy models of Airbnb and Uber.
Since none of us can see the next business breakthrough, we can only emulate the people who have brought real innovation to market, and challenge the team around us to think counter-intuitively, in hopes of changing habits. I found some real insights along these lines in a new book, “Unsafe Thinking,” by Jonah Sachs, who is one of the influential social innovators I know.
He outlines a set of straightforward practices that both he and I believe we can all use to create counter-intuitive breakthroughs ourselves. We don’t need to wait for lightning to strike, if we proactively improve our ability to accept more seemingly outlandish solutions and ideas:
Focus on the inconvenient truths of your industry or company. Perhaps your known world doesn’t always work in the ways you intuitively expect. What’s the grain of truth hidden in the feedback from persistent critics or unhappy customers? Look for these as starting points for productive cognitive dissonance rather than anomalies to ignore.
Reformulate existing problems to ones that open new doors. Some problems seem to have no solution that offers you growth. For example, if your customers don’t like your home security solution price, perhaps you should be selling it to insurance companies. They have more money, and can offer it free to customers due to reduced claim risks.
Bring in an outsider’s mindset, or simply an outsider. Sometimes we are all too close to see the real problem, or the solution. What seems counter-intuitive to you may be more evident to an outsider. In business, it pays to ask for insights from smart but less connected advisors, or challenge the creative thinking of new members on your team.
Listen to your intuition, but test it critically before rollout. Jumping to conclusions based on intuition still leaves room for creative thinking to validate the result. I still see too many business owners who are quick to lower their prices, only to find themselves in a deeper commodity hole. Counter-intuitively, you may need to raise prices for exclusivity.
Present ideas as minimally unsafe, to maintain credibility. Counter-intuitive concepts, when they break too many expectations and arouse too much dissonance, are often arbitrarily dismissed. People tend to listen and talk about ideas that don’t shock all norms. Once people engage, the team more readily pushes the limits, and experiences buy-in.
Often you will find the best opportunity for a breakthrough is a problem that seems intractable and that you wish to quickly resolve with a simple solution, like giving your customer his money back. If you stick with these problems longer than is comfortable, and find an innovative solution, you could end up with a delighted customer who brings in many new customers via social media.
For your team, you also must remember that they respond to what you reward. Incenting the most creative and non-intuitive ideas has been shown to fuel many breakthroughs. On the other hand, paying people for how fast they close problems will have the opposite effect. Instill a sense in your team that it is safe to suggest crazy ideas, ask big questions, and step into the unknown.
Experience in business is a great teacher, but it can also leave your performance and your company in a rut. Now is the time to rethink how safely you work, look for those blind spots, and build a healthier and more thriving company by embracing intelligent risk and some counter-intuitive ideas.
*** First published on Inc.com on 04/28/2018 ***