Trying to Innovate? Put down your hammer.

rachel audige
9 min readNov 28, 2023
© Rachel Audigé author of ‘UNBLINKERED: The quirky biases that get in the way of creative thinking …and how to bust them ‘— drawn by David Francis

Maslow said, “If you have a hammer… then everything you’ll see is a nail.” Basically, when we acquire or are given a specific tool or skill, we tend to be influenced by its function and utility — leading us to see opportunities to use that tool or skill everywhere. This creates a bias for a particular tool or process to the detriment of more counter-intuitive thinking and solutions.

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. — Marshall McLuhan

I believe that corporate innovation teams have grown too reliant on one or two tools (read ‘methods’ or processes) and do not tend to ‘drop them’ even when they are no longer of service. This means they run the risk of falling into a rut with their creative thinking or they may be using blunt instruments at certain points of the innovation process where there are other tools that would serve them better.

Dr Sean Brady is a forensic engineer based in Brisbane, Australia, who specialises in investigating the causes of engineering collapses and failures. Brady is particularly interested in the role played by human and system factors in failure in general and expertise in particular.

In a keynote delivered to the LINUX Conference in Queensland in 2020 entitled Drop your tools — Does Expertise have a Dark Side? Brady tells the story of an elite US fire-fighting team known as the ‘Smoke Jumpers’ who were parachuted in to deal with a wildfire in Montana’s Mann Gulch in August 1949.

The foreman — and the veteran of the group — was a man named Wagner Dodge. His job was to make sure that he and his team of 14 firefighters put out the fire and got out safely, as told in Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire.

When they arrived, the Smoke Jumpers assumed they would be ‘done and dusted’ by 10am the next day. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The temperature was 36 degrees Celsius and the winds were strong. By the time it was extinguished, this fire had killed most of the team, destroyed 4,500 acres and exhausted the combined resources of 450 firefighters.

Dodge’s initial plan of heading to the southern side was thwarted by the high temperatures and strong winds so he took the men onto the northern slope with the intention of heading down to the river and coming up to the fire from behind. This also proved impossible as the fire was spreading up the northern side. Once the river was written off, the standard fire-fighting procedure is to head for the ridge. They had 15 minutes to get to the top. They had a head start. But by this stage the fire was like a tornado behind them.

They are moving at 1.6 kilometres per hour. They have heavy equipment and a steep slope in waist-high chick grass. The fire was travelling three times faster with flames six metres in height,” Brady relates.

Their gear was way too heavy to run with and Dodge gave the order to drop the tools; to throw off the backpacks and run. According to Brady, most of them didn’t; they hung onto them in spite of their extreme weight and the danger they were in.

When Dodge caught sight of the ridge, he calculated that they were likely to get stuck. In an act of ‘desperate creativity’ and resourcefulness, he pulled out matches, cracked one and lit up the grass in front of him to create what would be called an ‘escape fire’. He screamed out to his team to lie down in the burnt ash. But — and this is key — the men continued to run.

It took five minutes for the fire to burn across Dodge’s position. He stood up pretty much unhurt but 13 of the men died in the valley that day.

Brady highlights a number of lessons from this tragic story but one that stayed with me is the inability of the Smoke Jumpers to let go of what they know — even when faced with a life-threatening situation and despite receiving direct orders from someone as highly experienced as Dodge. His ‘expert intuition’ would have saved their lives.

It is also striking that they cannot suspend their own expertise to recognise the opportunity of the escape route Dodge offers them. We are wedded to our tools and what we know.

We are wedded to our tools and what we know.

In this context, the team’s inability to let go of expertise had dire outcomes. The question is — whether we are facing an urgent situation that requires on-the-spot solutions or sitting in an office trying to think differently about a problem, a project or a product — if our expertise is not appropriate or the tools we have are not going to solve the problem, do we accept this and consider other options?

Sean Brady highlights that we are more likely to ignore the facts and behave irrationally. We fall back on the tools that we know well whether they are the best ones for the job or not.

I believe that, like the Smoke Jumpers, corporate innovation teams have grown too reliant on their tools and do not tend to ‘drop them’ even when they are no longer of service.

As an example, one of my clients had a hugely complex process which was meant to spit out data that would form the basis for important milestone decisions. The problem was that the process was so slow by the time the data was available the executive team had already moved on without it.

The decision was made to use Six Sigma, a method that was popular in some of the major manufacturers of the 1980s, in two 15-day ‘sprints’. [Six Sigma is a quality management methodology used to help businesses improve current processes, products or services by discovering and eliminating defects. The goal is to streamline quality control in manufacturing or business processes so there is little to no variance throughout.] Now, according to pros of this method who I have interviewed, this was problematic for this specific project on a few levels:

It is a system for eliminating defects in manufacturing. It was born to work with components to ensure the most throughput at the best quality and is supposedly excellent for mapping current state but it may not help you get to future state.

It will also ask some crucial questions and should challenge assumptions but may not get to the cognitive bias.

In the case of my client, it was a very political process and some of the language could put people on edge. It does not pay special attention to the human and behavioural dimensions of driving change.

This particular method does a great job at showing you what isn’t working but is not so good at showing you how to do something different. It has always been about efficiency and precision — not innovation.

What is more, it is a big consumer of time… It felt like reaching for a spanner when an axe would have been better.

SANDBOX & CREATE AND ‘INNOVATION SHADOW BOARD’

To effectively ‘drop our tools’ — or at least challenge them or understand when to use them — we need to employ some simple counter-strategies. Here are three to explore:

i) Drop your usual tools and get curious about other ways of innovating. Learn to unlearn. Unlearning is about challenging the established and questioning the accepted. It implies an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of the tools we have and a realisation that we do not, in fact, know it all. One of the challenges of unlearning is to have the humility to cultivate a beginner’s mindset; a spirit of openness to new learning. Without this openness, if something contradicts your current understanding, you are likely to dismiss it. This does not mean denying your expertise, it means staying open to new thinking and new paradigms.

We need to get comfortable with the idea that what we know is provisional and not get fixed in our thinking. It is very hard for any team to be creative when experts ‘block’ thinking. An extension of this is to constantly prove that what you believe to be true can be substantiated. There will be instances when your mental model is no longer relevant or effective.

As Mark Bonchek, CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking, explains: “This is a challenge because we are usually unconscious of our mental models. They are the proverbial water to the fish. In addition, we might be afraid to admit that the existing model is growing outdated. We have built our reputations and careers on the mastery of these old models. Letting go can seem like starting over and losing our status, authority or sense of self.”

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. — Alvin Toffler

ii) Ensure that innovation leads are trained in a variety of methods. If you are ‘the innovation guru’ in the company and people come to you to create sprints and workshops, try not to make the mistake of always reverting to the same approaches. Get yourself trained in a range of methods that will serve you along the innovation journey. If you are driving innovation on a larger scale, try to push back on the tendency to select one method and apply it to everything. For example, the sweet spots of SIT may be truly creative problem solving, ideation and inventive stress testing but Agile and Lean bring more value when it comes to prototyping and implementation. Biomimicry might bring you an entirely different type of inspiration…

iii) Start creating a conceptual framework for your toolset. Learn what is blunt or sharp and for what. To make sure you reach for the right tools for the right task, what comes to mind for me is what I have baptised an ‘Innovation Shadow Board’. By this I mean the sort you have in a garage — not a boardroom. I recall that my Dad had one of these. It was a panel with silhouettes of his tools painted on it, ‘shadowing’ them with hooks to hang them in their designated spot. There were often tools missing or strewn on the bench, but he knew where they belonged and how each one would serve him. It always seemed a very sound way of organising a toolset.

© Rachel Audigé author of ‘UNBLINKERED: The quirky biases that get in the way of creative thinking …and how to bust them ‘ — drawn by David Francis

I was working with a major telecom provider and shared my desire to see organisations work with not one, but many tools that they select knowingly from a virtual ‘innovation shadow board’. They immediately asked me to “give them one’” Of course it’s not that simple, there is no one-size-fits-all and a range of factors must be taken into account. I am currently writing my next book on this. I suggest that innovation managers explore different criteria to assess, classify and use their innovation toolset and mindset.

Some ideas I’m exploring include arranging them in accordance with:

Their relevance/efficacy along the innovation journey from discovery to scale.

The of innovation they are seeking: market pull, technology push or process innovation.

Specific use case i.e. processes and systems, productivity issues, manufacturing processes, services, channels, products, business models and so on.

The required Speed of application.

The cost of application.

▶ Their Ability to handle complexity.

Along an empathy scale?

Or any manner of criteria directly linked to the organisation’s innovation framework and strategy.

We easily get in a rut with our thinking. Organisations that are serious about fostering innovation and creative thinking should be giving their people more degrees of freedom with their methods and tools. At the very least, this means allowing innovation leads to gain awareness of and a certain level of comfort in applying a range of innovation approaches.

Get in touch if this is of interest. I would love to bring some tools to a sandbox of your creation to see what is most relevant for your organisation for a given issue or context.

Expose or skill up your team with some sharper tools in 2024.

#systematicinventivethinking #creativitylovesconstraints # innovationshadowboarding #innovation #creativity

Rachel is a trainer, facilitator and advisor in innovation and marketing strategy. She runs Systematic Inventive Thinking ANZ and finds this to be a sharp tool for some important steps in the innovation process. This is an extract from UNBLINKERED: The quirky biases that get in the way of creative thinking… and how to bust them. If you like it, check it out on her website rachelaudige.com.

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rachel audige

Unearthing resourceful ideas hiding in plain sight. I am a Franco-Australian facilitator, trainer and writer on innovation and creative marketing & strategy.