Try a bit of vuja de

Most of us don’t realise we do it. Even the most experienced leaders battle it on a daily basis. Psychologists call it ‘confirmation bias’.  “It means that people see what they want to see,” explains Scott Anthony in his new book, The Little Black Book of Innovation. “If you have a belief, you see things that conform to that belief, and you ignore things that don’t. Confirmation bias explains why two people can look at the same data and see completely different things.” For executives, extensive experience itself can create blockages. “Assumptions are one of the biggest creativity killers in organisations of all sizes,” adds psychologist and creativity expert, Amantha Imber. “Chances are, if you have a problem you are trying to crack, you hold a whole lot of assumptions or pre-conceived notions that are boxing in your thinking.” The late Cynthia Barton Rabe, a former innovation strategist at Intel, argued that many organisations struggle with a paradox of expertise where deep market or product knowledge makes it harder to challenge long-held assumptions. “When it comes to innovation, the same hard-won experience, best practice and processes that are the cornerstones of an organisation’s success may be more like millstones that threaten to sink it,” she wrote in The Innovation Killer. Her answer: to recruit, from outside the mainstream, “zero-gravity thinkers …who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or ‘the way things have always been done’”. Scott Anthony urges executives to deliberately seek out and study the unexpected, the anomalies. Another trick is “to frame things as a reverse of what you are truly expecting” to ensure outlier options are also considered (what writer and entrepreneur Bill Taylor calls “vuja de”). Finally, involve people who don’t have ‘skin in the game’. “Thought leaders who describe the wisdom of crowds note that groups outperform experts because while individuals suffer from confirmation bias, a group does not,” Anthony says. “Even the injection of one outside voice can help you savour surprise.”

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