Cynthia Rabe: innovation and zero-gravity thinkers

Published May 30, 2013

Category: Innovation | Outsourcing

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Written by: Kate Vitasek
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Kate Vitasek

Kate Vitasek is an international authority for her award-winning research and Vested business model for highly collaborative relationships. She is the author of six books on the Vested model and a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. She has been lauded by World Trade Magazine as one of the “Fabulous 50+1” most influential people impacting global commerce.  

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This month’s blog honours best-selling author Cynthia Barton Rabe, author of The Innovation Killer. Tragically, Rabe passed away in 2011, killed by a hit and run driver at age 47—just five years after her revolutionary book on innovation was published.

Rabe’s lessons follow nicely after my blog on Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma.

If companies are in an innovator’s dilemma, Rabe would tell you it’s their own darn fault.  Why? They are (literally) killing their own good ideas.

But why would employees kill their own good ideas? For starters let’s face reality; innovation is difficult. How do you get from the universal desire for innovation to the reality of it? How do you create and nurture a culture that encourages innovation and makes it an essential lifeblood of a company?

Rabe’s lesson? Try some Zero-Gravity Thinking. But more on that in a moment.

Rabe challenged businesses to think differently about the nature of innovation. Her premise in The Innovation Killer is illustrative: We are “our own worst enemy” because the “burden of what we know limits what we can imagine.”

Her idea is that “groupthink” and “expertThink,” along with knowledge and experience, are innovation killers. According to Rabe, the power of non-expert thinking can be a catalyst for real innovation because it disrupts the usual “group thinking” that often is too cautious, stifles creativity and derails the innovative solution.

In Chapter 1, Rabe says, “We all feel the pressing need to unlock the secrets that will allow us to innovate because so few of us seem to know how. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that few of us know how to sustain it in our organisations once we’ve had an initial taste of it. Why is it so hard?

“Why … do we so often fall short? My very un-politically correct opinion is that we are handicapped. We are innately disadvantaged when it comes to fostering ongoing innovative thinking in our organisations. And, as it turns out, human nature itself is at the root of the problem.”

Humans for the most part have a natural tendency to shy away from new and different ideas, or even kill them outright.

What we can do about this?

First, Rabe defines innovation as “the application of an idea that results in a valuable improvement.” Note the importance of value in that idea.

In the Vested approach, companies and their service providers collaborate to create and share valuable improvements in the way they operate their business relationship. It’s an all-inclusive mindset.

Her definition is purposefully simple: “The point of the definition is to emphasise that the ability to think innovatively should be a goal for every function in an organisation—not just the new product or technology development team.”

Aha! Get everyone involved in the innovative process, not just the so-called experts. But unfortunately Rabe’s book is also based on the premise “that our ability to think innovatively within each and every function in an organisation is under attack. And, the attack isn’t coming from the outside. It’s coming from within. Perhaps most startling is that the threat increases as our companies become more successful.” (Anyone who has had to deal with Junkyard Dog turf protectors knows what Rabe is talking about.)

Again, it’s human nature, both individually and within organisations, to rely on groupthink and expertThink – Rabe contends there is “a wealth of evidence to suggest that both of these behaviours are nearly inevitable in organisations… Together these behaviours weigh us down in ‘what everyone knows’: crushing new ideas, stifling breakthroughs, and, yes, killing innovation before it even surfaces.”

Rabe’s solution is straightforward and elegant: eliminate the organisational filters and processes that do the killing. “Our filters help us get a little better at what we already do, but act as formidable barriers to doing something a whole lot better or even completely differently.”

The novice or the non-expert can bring outside-the-box thinking to innovation, and even induce the experts to think about things in ways they never had before. These are what Rabe terms the Zero-Gravity Thinkers, because they are not weighed down by groupthink and expertThink. They can help organisations combine the power of the intuitive mind with the power of the expert mind.

Or as Rabe says regarding her experiences at Intel, Everready Battery Company and others: “The prolonged presence of an outsider, who was not weighed down by the conventions of expertise, acted as a hyper-stimulant for creative ideas that could actually be implemented. Filters became less constrained. A different perspective suggested alternate paths. Innovative thinking flourished.”

This, it seems to me, is why Rabe’s insights are so valuable in the Vested collaborative, “what’s-in-it-for-we” mindset, because Vested creates an ecosystem where zero-gravity – rather than zero-sum – innovation can flourish.

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