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I have just enjoyed one of the most though provoking books I have ever read.

Black Swan by Nassim Taleb.

Taleb addresses the phenomenon of Black Swans – very rare events that had a significant impact on the world, that were not predicted but were explained in hindsight. 9/11 probably being the most famous of these in recent years but also achievements such as the discovery of Penicillin and many technological advances. Could anyone really have predicted, when I was born over 40 years ago that I’d be able to communicate instantaneously with all my family at once via an app on my mobile phone whilst thousands of miles away – I think not!

One of the points Taleb brings to our attention is that what we don’t know is more useful than what we do know and actually knowing too much can be a bad thing!

All our knowledge comes from the past, whether it be terrorist activity and wars or customer behavior and financial performance.

If we agree with the premiss that some of the most significant events in our lives and those of our ancestors were not predicatable then how can a knowledge of the past help us to deal with the future? 

If we could really work out the successful formula for the next big thing in the restaurant business by analyzing the past then surely everyone could do it?

This started to make me think about innovation, the critical role it plays for every company and the importance of doing it right. 

The way our minds work means that we actually don’t think very much at all and we learn the precise not the general. We don’t tend to learn rules, we learn facts, that maybe why many of us find maths so hard to grasp.

So if we want to innovate to be successful in the future we need to do several things:

  1. We need to look at the extremes not the norm  – the extremes, the weird and wonderful should be our starting point. In our innovation sessions we always try and interview someone who has a weird or extreme relationship with the subject. When looking at biscuit innovation for example we spoke to a chef who only ate biscuits and on a project for a company in the sex industry we conducted a fascinating interview with a high class prostitute!

  2. We cannot solely rely on facts from the past. Data is important and it is great in telling us what is happening, how our consumers have behaved in the past, where the growth areas are in the business, what parts of our customer experience are not working well. It may well tell us where to focus our innovation efforts so we do not waste time on ‘blue sky thinking (one of my pet hates!)  but it will not tell us what the next big thing will be. Many times we have seen clients so bogged down in information they cannot see past it to the future.

  3. We need to get out of our ingrained rivers of thinking. Away from all those ‘facts’ we have accumulated in our lives that mean we can live our lives on autopilot – no thinking required to get dressed in the morning, drive our cars or play a round of golf, but thinking is needed to innovate and, although I hate the expression, ‘thinking outside the box’ is definitely needed. Using stimulus, whether it be lessons from ‘worlds’ outside our own or exercises to trick your mind it will help you to think differently and innovate.

  4. Most importantly we need to trust our instinct and not be afraid to fail. Even with the most thorough research project the evidence will never be there to fully justify an innovation decision so trust your gut and the evidence you do have, give it a go, try and fail fast!

There is much, much more in Taleb’s thought provoking book and I would urge you to read it, and after you have, you may find you spend more time thinking and less time reliving the past.

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