Having the right mindset, culture and leadership behaviours is essential to practise emergent discovery. With these three things in place, you can make it acceptable to broach the unthinkable.
Almost by definition, breakthroughs in their embryonic stages defy existing theories, principles, and bounds of experience. As such, they should be considered leaps of faith. So to foster emergent discovery in your organisation, you need to make it acceptable to consider the seemingly impossible.
Early in the process, leaders and team members must be willing to suspend disbelief and to reserve judgement about whether a hypothesis is true or not. Common (and very reasonable) questions such as “Why do you believe that’s true?” and “How do you know that’s the right thing to do?” tend to shut down the process of inquiry.
Instead, ask questions like “What experiment could you run to test that hypothesis?” and “If your hypothesis is correct, what are some possible areas where we might create value?” The way leaders react to early hypotheses heavily influences whether the most creative ideas are snuffed out or have a chance to evolve into something impactful.
Leverage your critics’ insights to make your ideas even better. Breakthrough innovations typically challenge prevailing dogma, the set of collectively held beliefs about what is possible and what is acceptable. Challenging dogma also means challenging the people (the “leading authorities”) who have built their reputations around its veracity. History tells us that people who challenge conventional wisdom are often subject to accusations of recklessness, incompetence, or worse. Leaders must make it acceptable to defy dogma. Consider the common practice of engaging external experts to vet internally generated ideas or to perform due diligence on proposed investments.
In principle, having such external input is a good idea. But too often, these experts become defenders of conventional wisdom. A better approach is to use them to improve the new ideas by identifying a critical assumption that should be tested, for example. If we engage sceptics and can tolerate their sometimes scalding critiques, we can learn a lot about what we need to do to move our ideas forward.
Make it about ideas, not personal ownership. Emergent discovery explicitly recognises that ideas are built over time with contributions from many people. One person’s ill-formed idea last month might be the essential building block for someone else’s step forward this month. The two are equally important to the process. Pursuing emergent discovery in your organisation requires a culture where ideas are not “owned” by individuals but are considered part of the intellectual commons of the enterprise.
Disconnecting ideas from people also means that a failed idea is not a personal failure. Accordingly, emergent discovery works better if the teams involved in an effort have shared incentives and rewards.
Leading emergent discovery
The notion that breakthrough innovation is a random, chaotic process largely dependent on the visionary powers of gifted geniuses makes many organisations hesitant to embrace it as a core element of strategy.
That is unfortunate given the massive value that breakthroughs produce for society and the companies that create them. But there is nothing mysterious or magic about the process. Breakthrough innovation can emerge through a rigorous and disciplined process of intellectual leaps, iterative search, experimentation, and selection.
Emergent discovery is a repeatable process that can be learned.
Mastering it, however, requires more than understanding the mechanics of the process. It requires an organisation in which the people, particularly the leaders, adopt the right mindset and behaviours.
They must be willing to consider seemingly unreasonable ideas and suspend judgement early in the discovery process. They must embrace learning through rigorous experimentation and failure and prioritise collective contributions over the personal ownership of ideas. Ultimately, whether an organisation adopts these habits depends critically on the behaviours of its leaders. Pursuing breakthrough innovation is as much a leadership challenge as it is a technical one.
If the Covid-19 catastrophe has taught us anything, it is that the world can change dramatically in short order. Looking ahead, all companies must build the capacity to leap beyond existing comfort zones. Now, more than ever, we need leaders who can drive breakthrough innovation.
Adapted from “What Evolution Can Teach Us About Innovation” by NOUBAR AFEYAN, co founder and chairman of Moderna Therapeutics, founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering and GARY P. PISANO Jr. Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean at Harvard Business School. – Harvard Business Review 202110