Amanda Lang has interviewed enough business leaders to know where the bottlenecks to innovation are, and she’s not afraid to call them out.
A TV reporter and host who has worked for several Canadian TV networks, Lang recently spoke at an event in Toronto about her two books, The Power of Why and, more recently, The Beauty of Discomfort, which look at the elements that lead to breakthrough thinking and how more organizations and individuals can harness them. She said that despite the ongoing interest in corporate-driven innovation, her research showed there are lines of business which consistently get in the way of developing new ideas and approaches to solving problems.
“The impediments are HR and IT. They’re system-driven, which builds the status quo environment,” she said, adding that while marketing and sales execs may be tempted to try and sidestep those coworkers, they might be better off trying to understand them better.
“Grab the people you find vaguely annoying, because you don’t understand how they think,” she suggested. This where “the beauty of discomfort” comes in, Lang says, because it’s what provokes us to question our own preconceived notions and try to come up with fresh answers to questions.
Lang, who currently works at Business News Network (BNN) after a controversial departure from Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), said organizations need to create “an environment that allows for questions of why and why not,” because otherwise they fall into the what she called the “status quo bias” of doing things as they’ve always been done rather than risk something new.
Innovation can also start with questions like, “why is this the way it is?” but before they even get there, Lang said many adults are now trying to re-learn the curiosity we had as a child.
“Two year olds ask questions for a living. Where did it go?” she asked, citing parents weary of ongoing interrogation from toddlers among the causes.
“Our response (to constant questioning from children) is some variation of ‘get lost.’ Adults see curiosity as a negative trait, a stalling tactic, so they give kids a reason that satisfies them. We internalize that and see that curiosity irritates our mother and father.”
Curiosity is equally unwelcome at school, she continued, where things the speed of completing a task tends to be rewarded instead.
“The subtext is often, ‘you asked the wrong question,’ or that when presented with information, we’re supposed to think alike. This is not just damaging; I think it’s soul-destroying,” she said. “Style of thinking is the last bastion of diversity. It’s more descriptive than anything else. When we dampen curiosity, we disconnect ourselves from our own lives.”
Reawakening curiosity is dead easy because it’s how humans want to think, Lang said. The question is how more companies can give employees permission to awaken it in themselves and others.
Lang has three recommendations for would-be innovators. First is to embrace mindfulness, which in this case does not refer to meditation exactly, but paying attention to a habit and get beyond routinizing it. Addiction research has been helpful here, she said — for example, how some smokers are able to give up cigarettes in part by studying their own cravings. “Being curious about it robs it of its power,” she said.
Innovation also tends to come from those with a grateful mindset, who look beyond traditional metrics but notice things that other people let float by. Finally, innovators tend to feel deep meaning in what they do, and they are proactive about finding meaning to reinforce more innovative behaviours.
“Searching for the ‘why’ can tell you if you should make a change,” she said.