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The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine -- and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It

The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine -- and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It

by Cynthia Barton Rabe

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"Knowledge is good," preaches the inscription under the statue of college founder Emil Faber in the film Animal House. But as valid as that declamation may be at a university, in the corporate world what passes for knowledge can be a killer.

Companies and teams rely on "what we know" and "the way we do things here" to speed decision


"Knowledge is good," preaches the inscription under the statue of college founder Emil Faber in the film Animal House. But as valid as that declamation may be at a university, in the corporate world what passes for knowledge can be a killer.

Companies and teams rely on "what we know" and "the way we do things here" to speed decision making and maintain a sense of order. But progress demands change, risk taking, and occasionally, revolution. Processes must be overhauled, assumptions challenged, taboos broken.

But how do you do it? Who among the group will take responsibility for a brand new initiative or unorthodox decision? Who will be willing to stand up and say, in essence, that the emperor has no clothes? As much as we laud the concept of "thinking outside of the box," most of us think it’s a lot safer to stay inside.

It’s time to call in a "zero-gravity thinker" who is not weighed down by the twin innovation killers — GroupThink and its close cousin, ExpertThink. Such outsiders are in plentiful supply, whether from the department down the hall, the branch office, a consulting firm or even another company. Unburdened by all the nagging issues that plague even very effective groups, the outsider will know new ways around a problem, identify possibilities where none seemed to exist, and spot potential problems before they spin out of control.

According to The Innovation Killer, the right zero gravity thinker will ideally possess the following traits:

Psychological distance: the most important tool of the impartial observer, it enables him or her to maintain an open mind.

Renaissance tendencies: a wide range of interests, experiences, and influences more readily inspires innovative approaches.

Related expertise: strength in a relevant area may lead to "intersection points" at which solutions are often found.

The book helps identify when and why you should call in a collaborator, where to find one, and how you and your team can start working with him or her. There are also strategies for turning yourself into a zero-gravity thinker when it’s simply not practical to bring in a true outsider.

Knowledge is good, except when it trumps real innovation. Whether your team is too focused on the forest or can’t see past the trees, this book will help you add the perspective you need to make the great decisions that will move your company forward.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“... easy to read and understand, and offers an interesting way to combat the barriers to innovation we are familiar with.”

-The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“This excellent book ranks very high on our scale of mindfulness….A brilliant book... one of the best of the year!”

-The CEO Refresher

The New York Times
"it may be time to make use of the ideas that Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes in the best book of the bunch,"The Innovation Killer"
The Globe and Mail
The book is easy to read and understand, and offers an interesting way to combat the barriers to innovation we are familiar with.

The CEO Refresher
This excellent book ranks very high on our scale of mindfulness . . . .A brilliant book and one of the best of the year!

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Read an Excerpt

The Innovation Killer

How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine-and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It
By Cynthia Barton Rabe


Copyright © 2006 Cynthia Barton Rabe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8144-0883-4

Chapter One

How To Work With A Zero-Gravity Thinker

Eleven Questions And Answers

The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress. - C.F. Kettering

THIS CHAPTER PROVIDES DETAILS of how to work with a Zero-Gravity Thinker (particularly in a Collaborate role) by answering eleven of the most common questions about the human relations- and process-side of things.

Question 1: Is a Zero-Gravity Thinker in the Collaborate role (or any other role) one person, a group of people, or an organization?

Answer: A Zero-Gravity Thinker is a person. Because it is difficult to find someone with an equally strong combination of each characteristic (psychological distance, renaissance tendencies, and relevant related expertise), some teams may choose to bring in more than one Zero-Gravity Thinker to "round things out"-though even working with one less-than-perfect Zero-Gravity Thinker is far better than working with none! This is one of the reasons Brighthouse, the Global Innovation Network, and ThinkShop, three companies that were highlighted in Chapter 7, tend to engage multiple Zero-Gravity Thinkers intheir efforts for clients.

Additionally, some organizations, like Ziba, which was also discussed in Chapter 7, have cultures that attract people with Zero-Gravity-Thinker characteristics. The organizations are "Zero-Gravity Thinker" friendly and are likely to deliver highly innovative work, but it is the individuals within the organization who are likely to be Zero-Gravity Thinkers-not the organization itself.

Question 2: Don't team members feel threatened by a Zero-Gravity Thinker asked to play a Collaborate role?

Answer: They certainly can feel threatened. And, if this happens, it can stop innovative thinking before it even begins. After all, a requirement for success is that the Zero-Gravity Thinker and the team work together.

Leaders can do two things to make sure resentment doesn't become an issue:

First, before anyone is hired to play a Collaborate role, leaders must make sure their teams understand the concept, the temporary nature of the role, and the rationale behind it. Critically, the team must realize that adding this role to the mix is a positive way to stimulate innovative thinking, not a punishment for poor performance.

Second, team members need to buy into working with a person in this role. If they don't, the effort will almost certainly fail. After all, collaboration means working together! With this in mind, team members should not only agree to work with a Zero-Gravity Thinker, they should have a say in who the Zero-Gravity Thinker is. This means that, as much as possible, leaders are advised to include team members in the selection process for this person.

Finally, as result of acting in collaborative Zero-Gravity-Thinker roles, I have found that one of the best ways to kick off an assignment is to have a one-on- one conversation with every team member, and share a document similar to the guiding principle of the Zero-Gravity Thinkers shown in the following example.

The Guiding Principles of the Zero-Gravity Thinker

I am not an expert in your business. You and your team are the experts in your business. My job is to use my expertise in a related area to think about and help your team think about challenges or opportunities you are facing in a different way.

I will ask basic questions that you (or others) might think I should know the answer to. Sometimes I might know the answer (or some version of it). Sometimes I might not. What is critical is that I want to hear what the person I'm asking thinks. Research shows that foundational questions help the questionee as much as the questioner, by forcing them to consider the challenge from a different (often naive) perspective.

I can only help the team if its members are open to trying new methods, testing basic assumptions, and looking at the challenge from a different perspective. Many times the approach I use will not be immediately helpful (sometimes it won't be helpful at all), but the cumulative effect is likely to be a higher level of innovative thinking than would have resulted otherwise.

Our interaction is successful if the team develops a more innovative, high-value solution to the challenge or opportunity it faces than it would have without my involvement. I may come up with the "big idea," but it's even more likely that someone else on the team will. It doesn't matter. In the end, if meaningful innovative thinking and actions result, the effort is a win for everyone.

Question 3: Is the Collaborate role one of a leader or a follower?

Answer: Although people playing this role have to have leadership qualities, the way they exercise them depends on the needs of the team. In most of the collaborative projects in which I've participated I vacillated between playing a participant and a leadership role, depending on the ebbs and flows of the project and the team. Perhaps the critical consideration is "what is required in order to stimulate innovative thinking?" For some teams this may mean the outsider taking a highly explicit leadership role, such as assigning deliverables, setting schedules, or introducing exercises and techniques. For other teams this may mean practicing the gentle art of persuasion behind the scenes. The astute Zero-Gravity Thinker will assess the needs of the team and act accordingly to help them explore innovative options and then converge on one that can be implemented.

Question 4: Is there a specific process for stimulating innovative thinking during the collaborative effort?

Answer: It seems that there are as many processes geared toward stimulating innovative thinking and breakthrough insights as there are people. Many have strong merits. Therefore, rather than stating that any one is always better than another, I submit that circumstances and the players involved dictate which specific approach will work best.

Having said this, there are five stages in problem-solving/innovation-development that are fairly universal and worth discussing. Though they may go by different names and be combined together in slightly different ways, these represent the fundamentals of a solid innovative problem solving process (whether working with a Zero-Gravity Thinker or not). As much as possible, these are steps I try to build into projects I work on. The rather un-catchy acronym, DIGI-MIR, is a helpful way to remember them.


Define: The period in which the problem (or opportunity) is initially defined. This typically occurs before the decision to hire a collaborative Zero-Gravity Thinker is made, and is often refined or reframed once he or she is on board.

Immerse: The period when a Zero-Gravity Thinker begins engaging deeply with the team, researching the challenge and refining the client's initial problem statement.

Generate: The period when the Zero-Gravity Thinker and the team begin hypothesizing, developing ideas, modeling, and gathering more information related to potential solutions to the challenge.

Incubate: The period when the Zero-Gravity Thinker and team set aside the challenge to allow ideas to percolate and "ripen."

Make It Real: The period when the Zero-Gravity Thinker and team develop an action plan for implementing the idea.

Note that the references to Zero-Gravity Thinkers during the following detailed discussion of these stages are primarily relevant to the Collaborate role.

Question 5: How long does each stage last?

Answer: It depends on the project, the team, the Zero-Gravity Thinker, the time frame available, and so forth. The situation might dictate spending more time on one stage than another. This is a topic for discussion between the team and the Zero-Gravity Thinker. At any rate, the total time frame for all phases can vary from a few weeks to many months.

What leaders should keep in mind as far as the Collaborate role is concerned is that the outsider needs to be around long enough to add value (remember that they need enough time to get up to speed on the challenge since they are related not specific experts) but not so long that they lose psychological distance. For projects that are on the longer side (multiple months), the Zero-Gravity Thinker can help maintain that distance by steering clear of the "norms" of the team, such as keeping slightly different hours, maintaining a separate office, or declining to participate in most office parties and gatherings. This isn't meant to be antisocial. And, it is fine for a Zero-Gravity Thinker to participate in some camaraderie-building (refer back to the importance of building one-on-one relationships in Question #2). But maintaining some distance is a reminder to everyone involved that the value the Zero-Gravity Thinker brings is as an outsider; not as a regular member of the team. It does no good if the Zero- Gravity Thinker begins falling prey to Groupthink and ExpertThink.

Question 6: What happens in the Definition stage?

Answer: Correctly defining the problem may be the most important part of the innovation effort. Albert Einstein was once asked what he would do if he were told that a comet would hit and destroy the Earth in one hour. He responded that he would spend 55 minutes figuring out how to formulate the question and 5 minutes solving it. Einstein knew, as do many in the field of innovation and strategy development, that the most important step in solving a problem, particularly a problem that requires an innovative solution, is to define it. Yet most managers spend a paltry amount of time on this vital aspect of the innovation process.

Ideally the problem-definition stage is at least a two-part exercise. Part one may take place before a team even determines whether the collaborative role is appropriate. During this time frame, the team (or its leader) develops an initial definition of the problem. They may even work with an outside firm in a facilitating role to help them better define the challenge. Based on the resulting definition, the team can categorize the problem as a Big P, Little P, or Exploratory, and decide whether (and in what capacity) to involve a Zero- Gravity Thinker. The initial problem definition and categorization also helps determine the type of related expertise it might be beneficial for a Zero- Gravity Thinker to have.

Chapter 10 provides some suggestions for better problem definition (getting to the root of the problem), either initially or as part of a reframing effort.

Part two of the problem-definition stage takes place after the Zero-Gravity Thinker has been brought on board. Based on the outsider's assessment of (and immersion in) the challenge, the problem definition may be refined or reframed. Teams should be very open to this revision effort. Often, as the Einstein story suggests, problem definition is the key to an innovative solution and can, therefore, be worth revisiting through the fresh eyes of an outsider.

Question 7: Explain Immersion.

Answer: There are two aspects to the Immersion stage. The first is immersion in the challenge. This is the time for a Zero-Gravity Thinker to become educated in the challenge by deeply reviewing research on the topic, becoming familiar with the team's previous plans and activities, and discussing various aspects of the problem with anyone who is remotely close to it. No question is stupid or off limits. On highly complex projects, this stage can last several very intense weeks (or longer). Teams should be prepared for a lot of questions and no answers during this period.

My personal experience is that when I start a project I often read dozens of documents from multiple sources related to a situation, industry, product, or market. And I frequently supplement that with hour-long (or even multiple hour- long) discussions with many key team members in those first weeks as well-all in an effort to immerse myself as deeply as possible as quickly as possible in the challenge. Some Zero-Gravity Thinkers may even use this time to conduct direct customer research, depending on the challenge and the budget for the project.

The second aspect is immersion in the team. This is the time when Zero-Gravity Thinkers begin to establish a rapport and credibility with the other members of the group. As noted earlier, active listening and a desire to understand the perspectives and concerns of the team are crucial during this time frame. Zero- Gravity Thinkers should not be concerned with impressing the team with their knowledge (they are not, after all, experts in the subject-matter), but should be focused on earning credibility as a thoughtful participant who values the input of each team member. People are more likely to be influenced by someone they like and respect.

Later, when Zero-Gravity Thinkers may be in the difficult position of trying to influence a team's mindset, the credibility and personal connections they established in their first weeks can be the key to a successful engagement.

Question 8: What's the most important thing to keep in mind about Generation?

Answer: Though there is currently debate on this issue, I continue to maintain that a key lesson for anyone who wants to develop more innovative ideas is to focus on developing a lot of ideas. Thomas Edison set a quota for himself to come up with a minor invention every ten days and a major one every six months. He held 1,093 patents (though we know some were collaborations with employees). Were some of those ideas bad? Undoubtedly a lot of them were. But nestled in among some of the duds were the light bulb and the phonograph. Even if the other 1,091 patents never contributed to anything significant (something that isn't the case), those two alone would have been worth the effort.

What I mean by developing more ideas, however, is not that there need to be dozens of undirected ideas for every challenge. What I mean is that each person on the team needs to become an "idea-person"-someone who practices coming up with ideas and voicing them on a regular basis. In the end a challenge may have only a few well articulated and focused ideas associated with it, but one of which may be "the big one." I submit that a culture that encourages open discussion and ideation is more likely to land on "the big one" than a culture that does not encourage individuals to become "ideators."

Developing more ideas isn't something that just happens in a brainstorm session (in fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest brainstorms are rarely where the best ideas originate). More important is a team attitude toward openness and collaborative thinking that permeates day-to-day interactions. Team members and the Zero-Gravity Thinker need to feel safe sharing their half-baked ideas with one another. And, critically, they need to be open to what Michelle Barton of the University of Michigan calls the "generous contribution." That is, they must be willing to offer ideas unselfishly, with the understanding that those ideas will be twisted, turned, morphed, changed, and (hopefully) improved by the group. In this way idea "ownership" shifts from the individual to the collective.

Consider what happens at MIT's Media Lab, where Professor Pattie Maes's team developed Firefly, a commercial system for filtering the products and music that users can find online based on the preferences of like-minded people. She says, "Most of the work we do is like this. We start with a half-baked idea which most people-especially critical people-would just shoot down right away or find uninteresting. But when we start working on it and start building, the ideas evolve."

Unless, of course, we work in a culture where this type of openness is already accepted, sharing half-baked ideas can be easier said than done. The sad reality is that many of us, particularly more senior managers, have become so used to being "sold" on ideas that we actually participate very little in the ideation process itself-which can be a negative for everyone involved.


Excerpted from The Innovation Killer by Cynthia Barton Rabe Copyright © 2006 by Cynthia Barton Rabe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

The CEO Refresher
This excellent book ranks very high on our scale of
mindfulness and will take you through the perversions of 'group-think' and
the absolute innovation killing 'expert-think' that are rampant and
inevitable in most organizations today. The author proposes a most
innovative solution - injecting 'zero-gravity thinkers' to help people
'escape the weight of what they already know.' A brilliant book and one of
the best of the year!
Al Ries
Knowledge, experience, groupthink and expert think are all innovation killers in Cindy Rabe’s world and I think she’s right. A revolutionary book that will challenge your thinking.
From the Publisher
"The Innovation Killer challenges the reader to consider the power of non-expert thinking as a catalyst for innovation. Cindy Rabe's smart approach to disrupting the ‘group thinking’ that stifles creativity and derails innovative solutions is both practical and intriguing. Bright, fun, and startlingly pragmatic — a great read for any leader who is struggling to move a team or project to a higher-level result."

— Nancy Hickey, Senior Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer, Steelcase, Inc.

"This book is a very timely reminder that it's often outsiders that drive innovation and change. Radical ideas usually start in the minds of mavericks, outcasts and eccentrics long before they are accepted by the mainstream. Anyone who has the courage and the foresight to invite these people inside their organization will live with neither failure nor regret."

— Richard Watson, CEO, Global Innovation Network, and Fast Company Innovation Columnist.

"Innovation for the rest of us. Rabe outlines the path to breakthrough innovation in simple, human terms."

— Bob Marchant, President/CEO, Modo, Inc.

"For anyone interested in innovation this book is essential reading because it addresses what others do not, the natural tendency to kill new and different ideas, and provides guidance on what can be done about it."

— Peter Lawrence, Chairman, Corporate Design Foundation

"Cindy Rabe courageously describes the elusive ingredients for innovation, a prized asset of business and society. She blends academic discovery, case studies, sage wisdom, and street smarts into a refreshingly helpful resource. This book will serve as a powerful catalyst if organizational leaders are ready to find and embrace innovation."

— Ron D. Arp, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, Nautilus, Inc."

Meet the Author

Cynthia Barton Rabe was an Innovation Strategist for Intel Corporation until early 2006 when she founded Zero-G, LLC, an innovation and insight-stimulation firm. She has 20 years of experience in senior business and marketing management roles for consumer product and technology companies including Intel, Ralston Purina Company, and Eveready Battery Company. She has held a number of positions in marketing and new business creation, including Director of Consumer Marketing for Intel’s first consumer home networking product. She also served as an advisor to Intel "Intrepreneurs" within Intel’s internal investment group. Her early business management skills were learned at the Ralston Purina Company, where she was a member of several consumer product management teams, including the Eveready Battery team that introduced the "Energizer Bunny" advertising campaign.

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