Design Psychology and Innovation Fears

Innovation means trying new things and that involves overcoming fear by and through design efforts

Of the many barriers to successful innovation, the constellation of fears associated with prototyping and evaluation might be the greatest of them all. This is partly due to the high diving board problem, but also because innovation means learning, making, and evaluating.

It turns out two of these tasks (learning and evaluating) invoke a lot of fear in people and that affects the third (making). It’s one reason why innovation is much easier to talk and write about than it is to actually do. It’s why when it comes to trying something out (prototyping) we find many organizations failing to launch.

Making Innovation: Think Small

“Just try something out” – is a phrase I’m finding myself saying with nearly every client engagement and it is the four words that might also be the most ignored by my clients.

The reasons (excuses?) given for not trying something out are too many to list. Most of the time it has to do with some uncertainty about what something will do, look like, or produce and concerns about what people (bosses, customers, partners) might think. But that is the entire point: if you know what you’re going to get and what’s going to happen it’s not innovation.

Firstly, the conceit associated with fears around what others think is larger than it needs to be. Great innovation is often done with the smallest possible improvement implemented in practice. This means creating a change that can be built upon. It’s also something that can be done without fanfare, promotion or drawing attention.

Small changes are powerful because the number of variables associated with the innovation is kept to a minimum allowing for the simplest evaluation to draw connections between changes/additions and outcomes. It also has the least likely effect on a wider system — although that is why evaluation is always important to include because what we put out into the world, even if small, requires responsibility.

Fears and Failures

Creative confidence is one of the pillars of design psychology. While craft is important, many skilled practitioners are lousy innovators because they don’t have the confidence to apply what they know consistently. They apply what they know to what they already know and do. This is valuable as maintaining things, but it’s not to be confused with innovation.

Much of what encompasses design psychology is this confusion between being a maintainer and an innovator. Both are vital if done purposefully and intentionally, but less so if we think we’re innovating when really we are maintaining the status quo with some new information. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell argue:

Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Maintenance offers protection from the fear of doing something new and failing. It offers greater stability, although it also comes with established standards that need to be met (whereas real innovation exists in a domain of evolving, emergent standards) which add its own pressure from evaluation.

Design – the discipline of innovation – is about applying creativity, craft, research, and production to the development of a ‘solution’ to a problem or situation and can be seen by some as something we fail at. It’s better to engage in design and innovation theatre with talk of innovation, prototyping, and design thinking than actually making something.

Muscles for Innovation

The solution is not something glamorous or dramatic. It’s just doing the work.

It’s easier to prototype when you do it often. It’s never easy, but it is easier.

The lessons from history and innovation research show that success favours those that make the most attempts, which means the most false starts, failures, abandoned projects, and changes in strategy. In other words: innovation is about innovating. The more you resemble innovation in your process the more you will innovate in your products.

The barriers to innovation are often cultural and that is about what we do every day. Culture is ‘the way things are around here’ and that means taking risks, prototyping, evaluating, and doing it all over again, persistently, and consistently.

So the lesson here is simple: just do it. Come back to the high diving board problem and just take the dive. Do it when no one is looking and get out of the pool and do it again. That’s how you build the muscles for innovation.

Photo by Amy Lister on Unsplash and Charlotte Karlsen on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: