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Black and white thinking can be an innovation killer

Posted 5 years ago

Two situations over the past week highlighted for me how ‘black and white’ thinking from ‘innovation experts’ is negatively impacting on startups. I’m referring to the occasions when an expert states that their way is the only way for a new venture to be successful.

The problem I see with this position is that when you have worked in this space for more than a year or two, you recognise there’s a lot of grey in innovation and commercialisation – a lot of unknowns and gathering data to try and work out the best way forward… and that’s rarely a linear journey.

I have found that black and white thinking usually indicates three things: the person espousing it takes the definitive stance because they need to be seen as being an expert with the secret sauce; or they don’t understand the complexities involved; or they haven’t got the depth and breadth of experience to know any different.

Here are the two situations that prompted my most recent frustration with black and white thinking:

  1. A founder had won local and state pitch events and moved onto the national event. A paid mentor for the pitch competition (from a law firm) made the founder throw out their successful pitch deck and follow his directions – starting from scratch. The founder ended up coming last in the pitch event.
  2. An adviser in a ‘Big 4 Firm’, after hearing a presentation, promptly told the team that they had the strategy all wrong. He then claimed that if the team didn’t listen to his advice that the venture was going to fail (I understand there was a suggestion that for a fee he would fix everything up).

Now, I am not saying that there is a problem with receiving push back, feedback, or constructive support from field specialists. But unfortunately, these examples are not uncommon – situations where ‘innovation experts’ feel and act on a need to assert their authority because their way has worked once or twice before, and accepting that founders might have more insight about their own technology or market is confronting.

After working with founder teams, SMEs and multinational corporates for more than two decades, I know that a better way to navigate the complexity is to view everything as dark grey in the early stages and recognise the emergence of lighter grey as validation activities progress.

Giving black and white feedback might seem expedient and satisfying for the expert; but for the founders it can be the blow they never bounce back from.

– Brian Ruddle, managing director