The real reason innovation and change is so dificult and what to do about it.

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By Maria Potoroczyn, Tom Ingvoldstad & Michael Engström

The origins of linearity

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were 5 or 6 years old?

We all wanted to be someone. Not many of us have become that particular someone. Often, because as we went along within the education system, we were continuously discouraged from doing the things we did not have an immediate aptitude for. Have you reflected over the choices that are made for you by the system?

The system imposes choices that drive everyone to get better in a specific area, to specialize their talents and as a result become narrower people.

This is how the education system works – it forces you to narrow your skills and develop those that you seem to be good at.

Unfortunately, this process continues even further when entering the workplace.

Think about printed media – 15 years ago, with the rise of Internet it was already feeling the major squeeze, but has managed to survive. Today, with recent introduction of tablets and e-readers, printed media is practically dead. The need to diversify and move operations from print to digital is greater than merely great.

Once you embark on the journey of climbing the corporate ladders, you grow your expertise in specific areas that allow you to progress in the ranks. You base your decisions on the successfulness of decisions made in the past. If an approach worked previously, you assume it will work again and again. The problem is I that it will not.

Today, entire industries that thrived only 10 years ago are either experiencing immense decline, or are dead altogether.


Business Example

The HMV bankruptcy in UK showed the vulnerability of the CD / DVD retailers. Everything
was moved to digital formats; downloading of individual songs, albums, or entire film-libraries is
today as common as renting a VHS cassette was in the 1980s.


The downside of digital from a business perspective is a dramatic increase in piracy and copyright infringements

The content industry did not know how to deal with digital and instead focused on doing “more of the same”, trying to regulate a market that did not want to be regulated.

While the music industry failed to jump the Internet bandwagon 15 years ago, they today see digital distribution, using Internet as the key to end piracy altogether through new distribution platforms embedding digital rights management natively within the content.

Think about it: do you remember what you wanted to become when you where 5 years old?
Understanding the brain

The brain is the starting point for understanding our decision-making processes as well as starting to counter-act the negative effects of repeatedly relying on past experience and practice.

Psychology Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, describes the brain in the notion of two “systems”.

System 1 operates automatic and quickly while system 2 is more logic and allocates attention to
effortful mental activities. The key understanding is that system 1 operates with little effort and
system 2 demands effort and energy. Overall, our brain is “lazy” and tries to seek out actions that
require the least amount of energy.

From a historical and biological perspective this make a lot of sense. Given a limited supply of
energy, we want to preserve as much of it as possible.


Unfortunately, this structure also reinforces linear thinking in individuals and organizations. We go through life accumulating knowledge and experience up until the point where we are “masters” or “developed”, and we reach a point where we can use our intuition to guide us in almost all situations.

Ask your self how many times the last days, weeks, months you where faced with a situation that was truly new or you did not know what to do? Now ask a 6 year old the same question…

Thinking, Fast & slow

By Daniel Kahnemann

No time or intention or read the book?

Look at this animated 10 minute video summary instead.

From a Both And perspective we need to have a well developed system 1 in order to make fast and efficient decision strengthening our core business. However, innovation requires us to look at the world in a different way and be willing to pursue new directions knowing that it will require much more energy than if we continue to do more of the same. We have to utilize system 2 to question our assumptions, the way we perceive the world, and the decisions we make.

Looking back to look forward – would that make sense? How do we make decisions in general? And how should we redefine the decision making process to fit with the requirements of deciding about innovation? How do you decide when the future is uncertain, and your past experience doesn’t help?

“In business, it’s important to hire ambidextrous employees — people who have business and technology skills for example. They can imagine the future. If you don’t employ multi-talented professionals, you lose out on business opportunities that cannot be imagined by the linear worker.”

Steve Neiderhauser

Linear thinking

Linear thinking is when we continue to look at something only from one point of view, having only past experience as our reference. Linearity occurs when we take information or observations from one situation, place this data in another situation and make a conclusion or decision about the latter.

Linear thinking can doom an organization and/or a person. As an example, consider the organization that hires new employees who have backgrounds that match the employees that were hired in years past without any thought given to future needs and/or direction of the organization.

Organizations like that will reach a level of homogeneity that will not allow them to grow beyond what they are today.


Linear thinking causes “group-thinking”, which in turn creates a type of conformity, that affects any decision making. If people of the same background and the same experience make decisions – what outcome can this have?

If the group is so homogeneous, how can these people create a new, innovative, and groundbreaking quality? After all, they will only have the same references to work with.

Moreover, a homogeneous group has a much larger chance of running into problems leading to failure of projects. Mixing up people in work teams leads to differing viewpoints, more questions being asked. As a result more “proof-reading” of the concept happens, which means the project has a better chance of succeeding.   

Linearity vs. Innovation

One side of linearity in a business setting is the streamlining of operations, eliminating slack and maximizing efficiency. Basing on what worked well in the past, and taking away anything that is slack – we create lean and mean organizations that reach its highest efficiency levels.

But what happens to the slack time, to the exploration time, where does innovation happen then, if all has to be streamlined to be über-effective on reaching set goals of yesterday?

Basing your decisions on what worked in the past will produce the same results you achieved in the past. Your company will not grow beyond what it is today, and in fact, it is more likely that it will begin loosing market share, customers, margins, and profits.

What made you grow in the past, might result in stagnation and decline tomorrow – that’s the rule of the new, exponential world.


Counteracting Linear Thinking

There are a few ways in which the field of Innovation has counteracted “linearity”:


  • The principles behind Open Innovation for example state that it is a new imperative for creating value through engaging an array of different partners both external and internal to an organization. The process is enabled by opening up the boundaries between a company and its environment, thus becoming more permeable. This will allow innovative ideas to easily transfer inward and outward. It allows the partners to share risks and rewards and improves the quality of products / services launched.

  • Another way to counteract linear thinking is to look to different industries and markets for inspiration on how knowledge and methodologies could be transferred into a new context of your own industry.

  • Looking at processes in a very different sector can provide valuable insights that can inspire innovation, because it forces us to assess old problems with a fresh pair of eyes.

  • And finally, borrowing processes, technologies, methods, business models, etc. from other disciplines creates a cross-pollination of ideas, and fights back any linearity that might have creeped in as it forces everyone involved to think laterally about how an aspect can be successfully transferred into a new context and environment.

Open Innovation & cross-industry innovation

Open Innovation
Famous design consultancy IDEO has created the Open IDEO platform for solving global, social challenges - an Open Innovation platform that was created to do social good. It is a global community that solves challenges and problems in a positive, creative, collaborative way. People from all around the world share inspiration, create concepts, build on each other’s concepts, evaluate and vote for the best concepts. The concepts is then brought to life by, for example, the challenge-posting party, which is usually an IDEO partner / client.

Cross-industry innovation
How can Formula 1 be useful in healthcare? The leaders of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust's surgical and intensive care units were aware that they needed to improve and speed up the handover process of patients from their operating theatre to the intensive care unit (ICU) following heart surgery. 

In a crowded space, where typically three or four conversations could be taking place at once, it could take 30 minutes to untangle and unplug all the wires and tubes from a patient and then transfer them to the ICU.Great Ormond Street's head ICU doctor, Allan Goldman, and heart surgeon, Professor Martin Elliott, were watching a Formula One race in the hospital's staff common room having completed a 12-hour emergency transplant operation. 

As a car pulled into the pit stop, they noted that a 20-member crew changed the car's tyres, filled it with fuel, cleared the air intakes and sent it off in seven seconds in a manner that was coordinated, efficient and disciplined.

Recognizing the similarities with the handover disciplines visible in the pit of a Formula One racing team, they invited the McLaren and Ferrari racing teams to work with them to examine how their processes could be more structured and effective.  They went out to the pits of the British Grand Prix, met Ferrari's technical managers at their base in Italy and invited some of them to come and observe their handovers at Great Ormond Street.

Professor Elliott feels the team enabled them to review what they did with a fresh pair of eyes:

"They saw us operating on a solid table with the child under a heating or cooling blanket and all the vital connections to various bits of equipment, and then having to unplug everything and use a hand-operated ventilator as we took the patient out of the theatre, into the lift and along the corridor to intensive care. Their first thought was; why didn't we do everything on a bed trolley that was equipped with everything we needed and didn't require disconnecting and reconnecting. I pointed out that the manufacturer did not exist who would invest that sort of money in such a specialized product and that's when they started investigating human solutions and training methods to solve our problems."

The input by the Formula One pit technicians resulted in a major restructuring of patient handover from theatre to the ICU. 

This involved adopting a new protocol, better training and rehearsals. The protocol also outlined who should be the leader throughout the process (the anesthetist), provided a step-by-step checklist covering each stage of the handover process and included a diagram of the patient surrounded by the staff so that everyone knew their exact position as well as their precise task.


As Nigel Stepney, Ferrari's then technical manager, asserts:

"It's not about having the best people and just putting them together. It's about a group of people who can work as a team."

Following the adoption of the protocol, an industrial psychologist monitored 27 operations and found that the number of technical errors and information handover mistakes had almost halved.

The process is now being adapted to other areas of this hospital and others and the team want to examine how hospitals can learn from other high-risk industries, including NASA and the Navy.





Exponential Academy 2018