Innovation Requires Seeing the Present (Not the Future) with Greater Clarity


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So spoke (spake? spoked? speaked?) Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. So spaketh I, Jay Acunzo. Of course, Montoya was referring to the word "inconceivable," while I'm referring to that strange notion of "visionary."

We adore "visionaries" in our work culture today, and we use that word to describe people who seem to do work we can't explain. They seem to see the future. But I'd argue that their work is actually built for today, while unfortunately, most of ours is built for the past. That's because our thinking comes from the past. Over the last 6 months, as I pored over all the research and stories for Break the Wheel, I realized:

Visionaries don't see the future. The see the present more clearly than others.

When we dub someone a visionary, we assume they saw something coming that we couldn't. In reality, however, they simply cut through distractions and misconceptions to see the world as it really is today. (Turns out there's a psychological issue which causes most of us to base our thinking on those distractions and misconceptions, rather than see the world clearly. It's called "cultural fluency," and I explore that more fully in Chapter 7 of the book).

Sure, an innovative thinker can more easily extrapolate their ideas from today into the future, but it's only because they start by understanding the present so intimately. Like building a skyscraper, their foundation is strong enough to support the heights they reach. On the other hand, the rest of us are stuck erecting flimsy little huts. Our thinking hasn't caught up to the present quite like the innovators we admire. After all, a best practice or a common approach is a lagging indicator, not a leading one.

Additionally, when a great mind in history was rejected by his or her peers, only to be revered in our society today, we tend to conclude, "Well, they were ahead of their time." But consider that their contemporaries were merely stuck in the past. Only after the rest of society caught up (which may have taken years, decades, or even centuries), did people start to look back and realize, yanno, that fella was really onto something. Maybe the whole "clasp him in chains" thing wasn't the best move.

Weren't people from olden times so silly?

Yes. But we've only gotten goofier today. It's easier and more tempting than ever to base our decisions on the past thanks to the endless amounts of data and documented knowledge we can collect or find. Today's information ubiquity, as well as the removal of any barrier to share an idea, has empowered a lot of great things in our world. But it also comes with a dark side: Advice Overload. That's a huge problem if we want to see things clearly in our unique situations in order to make the best possible decisions. Because make no mistake:

Innovation requires clarity, not prescience.

There's an old quote often attributed to the great investor Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway fame: "I'd rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong." This idea is simple to understand but hard to execute: It's more effective to continually update your knowledge rather than profess to know "the" answer all the time. When you routinely course-correct as you acquire new information, you shape your thinking and thus your work to the present moment. Whereas best practices provide security in their absoluteness, it's dangerous to base a decision on something that precise. With few exceptions (the laws of physics ... maybe), any mandate or blueprint must be contextualized to your unique and present situation to be as relevant and effective as possible. As Munger suggests, we should embrace a more zig-zaggy truth than those best practices offer: To succeed in the real world is to admit that the world changes, every day, and thus we should act like lifelong learners. We should seek to update our knowledge about our present environment, rather than cling to absolutes. That process NEVER ends.

"I'd rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong."

This quote has become somewhat famous in certain business circles thanks to Munger, but he actually wasn't the first to utter those words. The quote can be attributed to the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Either way, if we adopt this idea of being "vaguely right" instead of "precisely wrong," just as Munger later did, we might see visionaries for what they truly are: Investigators. They regularly update their knowledge as the context changes. In this way, I suppose they do possess a kind of "vision," but it's not the kind we usually imagine. It's not foresight at all. It's the ability to see the world around them more clearly.

When we obsess over best practices, we make decisions based on the past, not the present. We rarely pause long enough to investigate our environment, to ask good questions of our context in order to tear down assumptions. Even the latest trends swirling around an industry are only trends because they've been around long enough to become popular. They still lack context.

On the other hand, those "visionaries" we admire refuse to begin their thinking with absolutes pulled from the past. They may have moral principles to help them make trade-offs, but everything else is up for debate. They see the inherent danger in operating with too much absolutism: decisions informed by past precedent don't take into account present day information. And by the way, "present day" is a moving target. As soon as we utter "now," it's in the past. As a result, innovative thinkers know that they'll always be vaguely right. They ditch the need to feel precise, like they have "the" answer, and they busy themselves with updating their knowledge on an ongoing basis. Innovators are investigators, not experts.

Unfortunately, in our quest to do better work, we're fighting against centuries of dogma that prioritizes expertise, not investigative skills.

In generations past, because the goal was to work in factories or farms, uniformity and sameness were actually quite valuable. People learned that the foundation of great work was expertise. Know how to do the work and do it exactly as prescribed, and you’d have a great career. But in most careers today, especially yours and mine, the goal is to solve complex problems and to create and invent. Thus, the foundation of great work is no longer expertise. It’s awareness.

To possess the same “vision” of those innovators is to develop our senses of self-awareness and situational awareness. Now, you don't need to be a rocket surgeon to know the right question to ask next: How, uh ... how do we do that? We've never been taught how to develop our senses of self-awareness and situational awareness. (In fact, that's why I wrote the book.) Instead, we know how to find a "right" and "wrong" answer in some precise way. So consider that the difference between visionaries and others is the ability to ... well ... consider things.

Seeing the world as it really is leads to making better decisions than our past selves and most of our present peers. That level of clarity doesn't require "expertise." That's the kind of absolutism or false sense of precision that must constantly be updated and shaped as the world changes. Instead, clarity is about considering the world around us more often, with more purpose. It's about developing self-awareness and situational awareness to supplement the endless onslaught of best practices, conventional wisdom, and trendy tactics in our work. That is how we, too, can act like visionaries. That's how we can make decisions with confidence. More crucially, that is how we can tailor our thinking to our own unique situations.

Let others place visionaries on a pedestal. Let them agonize over understanding what makes them tick and how they peer into the future. The next time you assume they see something you can't, I hope you'll merely smile and shake your head. It's inconceivable.

"Visionary." Ugh. We keep using that word.

I do not think it means what you think it means.

Posted on September 24, 2018 .