Children are masters of discovery. That’s how they learn and grow so much, so fast. Take for example learning to ride a bike—that requires a lot of practice and perseverance, with many spills along the way. When a child falls off her bike, we tell her to pick herself up and get right back on. With each subsequent attempt, she figures out what works and what doesn’t, until eventually she’s able to do it on her own, and stay upright. As children grow up, this willingness to “try, try, try again” seems to fade—we become more self-conscious and concerned about what others might think, and more afraid of falling.
This is reinforced in school and later in the workplace, where performance is measured through outcomes and results, while the process of learning or doing recedes into the background. Because it’s viewed as just a means to an end, the journey itself becomes less important. Yet this is the most fertile ground for discovery—the time and place where mistakes can be made, detours can be enjoyed, and learning happens. There’s a natural openness and curiosity that are fundamental to child development. Somewhere on the path through adolescence, these qualities stop being nurtured and valued, as though somehow they’re no longer relevant in adulthood.
In the workplace, certain types of behavior are cultivated and rewarded—planning, flawless execution, and measuring success, defined narrowly around a set of specific targets and numbers. Vertical, hierarchical structures keep people in their swim lanes, most of the time. Employees generally know where to go and what to do in this environment. What’s missing are the motivation and incentives to seek a path less traveled, one that might lead to something much bigger than the typical cubicle output.
In this setting, it’s easy to think we’re supposed to have all the right answers all the time, so we often don’t take the time to seek out and discover new ideas or approaches. We’re hesitant to use experimentation as a tool to shape our plans and direction. As a result, we miss out on the unexpected findings and learnings that often result from a discovery-based approach to problem solving. In fact, it’s the very process of “figuring things out” that can often be the most fruitful. And, it’s the driving force behind many of the world’s most successful innovators, exemplified by people ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs. The common thread is a relentless quest for new ideas–testing, iterating, and trying again.
Cultivating a discovery mindset—one that is open to new approaches, encourages curiosity, and promotes a willingness to test and iterate—is the essential basis for all innovation. But embracing discovery is not always natural for an established organization. It can be a big culture shift to really commit to identifying new and bold ideas—and yes, falling has to be accepted as an important part of the journey.
A host of emerging business models that might have once seemed tangential, including ride sharing and apartment sharing, have gone viral and are now fundamentally changing the way customers and businesses interact. Uber and Airbnb are just two examples of the blurring of industry lines¾transportation meets mobile technology and payments, logistics, social platforms, and more.
Many corporates are watching the dramatically changing landscape from a “safe” distance, yet this actually puts them at real risk of missing the implications of the “Pac-Man” phenomenon, as a myriad of startups chomp away at their businesses in plain view.
Connecting with these disruptors and their innovative ideas is important for corporates, as it can shed light on the benefits of an entrepreneurial approach and embracing new ways of working inside traditional businesses. By deeply understanding the surrounding disruptive forces, companies can discover ways to “bring the outside in” and be a part of the change.
In this rapidly evolving world, past recipes for success no longer guarantee future growth. With alternative models transforming traditional growth areas and redefining businesses across industries, it’s an exciting time to envision future possibilities and discover new paths forward. Incremental change is no longer good enough—in order to survive and grow, established companies need to adapt and transform their product and service offerings. They need to leverage all of their strengths—the very ones that made them great to begin with—and be willing to go into uncharted territory, test new concepts, and accept unexpected outcomes. It may be more complicated than learning to ride a bike, but that childlike willingness to “try, try, try again” needs to be front and center, now more than ever, in the corporate quest for breakthroughs.
Debby Hopkins is Citi’s chief innovation officer and CEO of Citi Ventures. She will speak on the “Preemptive Innovation” panel at the Techonomy 2014 conference, Nov. 9-11.