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Nine pieces of unconventional wisdom for change makers

“The earth is the center of the universe.”

“The universe consists of the Milky Way galaxy.”

“Heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects.”

These claims all lived as conventional wisdom until disproved — by Nicolaus Copernicus (1543), Edward Hubble (1929), and Galileo Galilei (1589), respectively.

Conventional wisdom can be — or seem — helpful. We rely upon truisms and schemata without realizing we are doing so through many moments of the day. We rely on them to make decisions when time, data, and risks are limited. We assume their accuracy, especially when they are shared by authoritative sources, even when what we are being told cannot be verified with facts or there is contradictory evidence.

For change makers, conventional wisdom can be especially problematic because it inhibits creativity and reinforces cognitive biases. As a result, we may fail to recognize how old solutions apply to new problems, or worse, to see new solutions. The innovator’s work is that much harder, as they compete with conventional wisdom while seeking to win colleagues over to new ways of thinking.

As we work to understand and address today’s constant, roiling waves of change, we must strive to employ unconventional thinking to create new pathways to innovation, and to personal and professional growth. 

This is a great time to flaunt advice that reflects how-things-have-always-been-done-around-here and instead try unconventional approaches.  

Here, then, are nine pieces of unconventional wisdom for those who aspire to be truly innovative:

Success comes from being who you are, not despite who you are

Too much of the feedback handed out in today’s business world advises that people overcome the traits that make them different from the status quo. Reality is that these perceived character flaws may be where your greatness lies. 

You don’t belong everywhere.

If you are fighting for a seat at the table and not getting one, consider that you might be seeking to join a culture that does not embrace people like you. While that may be a sad reality, realize you won’t have much fun at that table should you get there. Don’t blame yourself. Seek out opportunities where the culture meshes with who you are, your values and goals. 

Hiring digital natives will not automatically solve a business’ transformation problems. 

Yes, the perspectives of Millennials and Gen Z and those who will follow them matters. What matters the most is populating the team with people who have had diverse life experiences and bring diversity of thought, curiosity, a hunger to learn, and a belief that big goals are achieved by collaborating.

Customer insights trump technology to uncover innovations. 

Technology is an enabler; insights are the raw material within which are buried the clues about people’s unmet needs, both emotional and rational. From these insights, ideas become concepts which become prototypes which become new business models and commercial opportunities that scale. 

Solutions come from asking questions, not giving answers. 

A quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask…for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Practice asking constructive, open-ended questions in your next meeting, to test out how much greater impact this behavior can have than debating the answer.

Listen more, talk less.  

From early school days we are conditioned to receive rewards for speaking up with the answer.  Try sitting back and listening and being the person who draws others out in meetings by building upon their ideas. Your colleagues will appreciate your support, and you will help ensure good thinking gets airtime.

Surround yourself with people who complement you

One of the best pieces of advice I got from a leader as I was building a team was, “Hire people who like to do the things you don’t like to do and are good at the things that you are not good at.” To cite another piece of conventional wisdom: “opposites attract.” Test this assumption, as opposites may at least be able to complement and benefit each other. 

Qualitative insights may be better inputs to decisions than numerical data.  

People buy based on emotion, often more so than on features and functionality. An understanding of emotional drivers of decisions is deepened in qualitative discovery — thoughtful conversations, behavior observation, tone and manner, body language. Pay attention to these signs, and take them into account as you make decisions, negotiate, design, and communicate.

Established businesses aren’t complete dinosaurs.

In fact, conventional thinking among startups overlooks how much legacy companies and startup teams can learn from each other. It keeps new teams from avoiding mistakes and moving faster to achieve results. Startups have a lot of strengths: they are scrappy and know how to do a lot with scarce resources, they don’t tolerate needless bureaucracy, and they are close to their customers. But looking to legacy companies can keep them from reinventing the wheel. They already know how to achieve quality at scale. They have figured out how to embed processes for consistency. They are accustomed to working with regulators. 

There will always be gravitational pull towards reasonable-sounding, though unproven ways of making decisions. As a change maker, you must maintain balance on a metaphorical tightrope — where you must listen and remain stubborn about your conviction so your unique insights and approaches are not buried by others’ untested beliefs. 

Beware any instinct to believe what you are being told. Perhaps you are getting information or advice from a reliable source. In this environment, challenging assumptions, even from the best sources, can happen in constructive dialogue. Try asking simple questions that avoid defensiveness, e.g., “How did you figure that out?” or “Can you tell me more about where you are coming from?” Ask the “what ifs” and “whys” to get below the surface. Examine these claims when you are aware of facts that contradict what is put forth as truth.

And pay attention to unconventional wisdom; it will be invaluable in these most unconventional times.

This post is a reprint of my post in builtin.com 

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