Right-or-Wrong is the enemy of innovation
I have long been fascinated by Iman Wilkens’ groundbreaking book Where Troy once stood, which argues that the city of Troy was located in England, and that the Trojan War was waged by Celts from the continent who, at the end of the Bronze Age, had run short of tin (an essential component in the manufacturing of bronze) and intended to get their hands on tin from Cornwall in Britain. In support of his theory, Wilkens has been able to match a number of topographical features (river names, mountains, coast lines, etc.) with the description that Homer makes of the landscapes of Iliad and Odyssee. Furthermore he has been able to – at long last – make sense of Odysseus sea voyages. By contrast, the dominant theory, which places Troy in Asia Minor, does not offer a single shred of evidence to support itself, makes Greek sailors look like complete idiots who can’t tell North from South, and arrogantly dismisses such lack of evidence and inconsistencies by stating that Homer may have been a great poet, but he was a very poor geographer! (“We are not wrong, Homer is!”)
Equally fascinating is that 20 years after its first publication, Where Troy once stood has remained largely ignored by academics. In those two decades, the pace of change in almost all aspects of life has been staggering: societies, the world economy, technology have changed beyond recognition. Innovation is such a hot topic because it has become a permanent feature of our lives. And yet, Wilkens’ compelling theory is flatly dismissed in academic circles. I’ve been wondering why…
Of course, a new theory does not have to be accepted straight away. Of course, any paradigm shift is bound to create resistance to change, in academia as in other walks of life. But it seems to me that there is something more fundamental at play here: it is the notion of ‘right-or-wrong’. If Wilkens is right, then the dominant theory is wrong (and vice-versa); there is no place for both, and that seriously raises the stakes. By contrast, in the world of technical innovation, there is a place for the old and the new: there is a place for Amazon and a place for bookshops, there is a place for the Apple‘s iPhone and for Nokia, there is no right or wrong, and that enables change to happen a lot faster (even if it means that in some cases the ‘old’ will eventually disappear entirely).
Thus, a ‘right-or-wrong’ approach is the enemy of innovation. Leaders, managers, workers who want to take part in the innovation endeavour need to ask themselves, not whether a new product is right or wrong, but what place it can carve out for itself alongside existing products. Of course, there will be cases where a new product, a new technology, a new business model may raise ethical questions, in which case those questions must be addressed. But even in those cases, reaching too quickly to an unequivocal right-or-wrong conclusion is likely to lead to unintended consequences and missed opportunities.
After all, innovation thrives on challenges, negotiating win-win deals, connecting the unconnectable, matching the profitable and the ethical: breakthrough innovators have, not a right-or-wrong, but a no-trade-off mentality.